Preschoolers learn through play

The best education you can provide for your preschooler is play.

Little boy playing with toy car.
Children learn through their play.

Anyone who has attempted to wrangle a young child to sit still and pay attention for more than a few minutes could tell you that children are little hurricanes, spinning from one thing to the next and sometimes leaving quite a mess in their wake. This impressive energy and stamina speak to the ways young children learn best (Hint: It’s not sitting still at a desk and listening to instructions).

Young children and preschoolers learn best when they are active participants in a learning experience. They need to experience things in a concrete way, meaning they can see, feel, manipulate, touch, hear and sometimes even taste things to figure out how they work. Just like you might sit in your new car and push all the buttons until you’ve figured out how to turn on the radio, work the windshield wipers and pop the trunk, children need to play and experiment to learn important skills and figure out how the world works. When they learn through play, they are building incredibly important foundational skills for learning and for life.

How can you support concrete and active play experiences for preschoolers? Michigan State University Extension has some suggestions to help guide your pursuit for play.

Encourage and support sensory play

Sensory play offers a fantastic opportunity for children to have concrete experiences and build foundations for learning. From birth, children are programmed to explore using their senses. Babies put things in their mouths; toddlers play with their food, squishing it between their fingers; and what child isn’t magnetically drawn towards a mud puddle? We know sensory experiences help build and strengthen connections in the brain, which is essential for learning and development. Children should have access to a variety of materials with different textures and even temperatures (within a safe range, of course).

Examples of sensory play include: sand, playdough, dried pasta or beans, and so much more. You could try letting children paint with chocolate pudding or check out recipes for sensory play materials .

Celebrate failure

Failure: The dreaded “F-word.” It has become a mark of disgrace, but it should be considered a badge of honor. Failures pave the road to success. It took Thomas Edison many failed attempts to invent the lightbulb. If he had let any of those failures stop him, history may have turned out differently. Instead, he is quoted as saying “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Learn to celebrate your child’s failures as opportunities to learn and grow, like the Robinson Family. When your child tries and fails, remind them that failure is a part of life, but don’t leave it there. Help guide your child to think about what went wrong, how they can fix it, or what they can do differently next time. As hard as it can be to watch your child fail at something, remember that you are gifting them with real-world learning. Who knows, they may learn enough from their failures to be the next great inventor.

Say no to worksheets

The worksheet dilemma is a highly debated topic. Children will have plenty of time in their lives to sit still and fill out forms. Learning in early childhood should provide opportunities to try new things, make mistakes, follow your instincts, create and explore. Worksheets are not developmentally appropriate for young children. They encourage children to think that there’s only one way to solve a problem and limit their ability to think critically or creatively. Worksheets also do not accurately reflect what a child knows, understands or is capable of doing. To help your child learn and grow, give them opportunities to actually do something concrete instead of completing a worksheet.

Allow physical activity

Physical activity helps children to not only burn off some of that limitless energy, but to learn as well. Physical activity is good for your brain and can lead to improved brain health and cognitive function, and it has also been shown to help kids do better in school . There are so many ways children can play and be physically active at the same time; be sure to give them opportunities to flex their big muscles. Whether that’s blowing bubbles in the backyard, taking an evening stroll or venturing to your local park, valuing your child’s physical fitness helps them work on their mental fitness too.

Avoid rescuing your child

It’s incredibly easy to want to step in every time your child has a problem. It’s understandable to want to be helpful and supportive and to avoid situations that might be challenging or upsetting for our children. But life is a series of problems, and to be prepared to solve those problems, your child needs plenty of practice. So when your child can’t get a puzzle piece to fit just right, instead of putting it in for them, take a step back and offer some hands-free guidance. Ask questions like, “What do you think would happen if…” “What could you do instead?” “How can we solve this problem?”

Help your child practice problem solving. Remember that if your child tries to solve their problem and it doesn’t work out, it’s still a great learning opportunity. Help them come up with another possible solution.

Limit passive technology

Technology has brought so many changes to our lives and the way we do things, even to how children play. While technology can incorporate some fascinating and meaningful learning experiences for children, passive experiences using technology can also limit learning. Finding a balance with technology is important, and limiting a child’s time spent passively using technology ensures they have lots of opportunities to engage in that important concrete learning. Be sure to incorporate technology experiences that are active and engaging, like video chatting, using digital books and educational apps that include interactive learning.

Get involved

This one can be tough. Between all the things you have to get done in a day, it can be tempting to get your child engaged in play and sneak off to cross a few things off your to-do list. Every parent or caregiver has to find a balance between getting done what needs to get done and making sure your child has the support and engagement they need to thrive. That means that sometimes you have to put your list down, get on the floor, get a little messy and really invest in learning experiences with your child. Children learn best when they have the support of their parents and other adults who care about them and engage in adult-supported play experiences.

Play is not frivolous and it is not optional for children. It does not distract from learning and it is not simply a way to pass the time. Play is how children learn best, first and foremost, and what they need most from the adults that love them is their ongoing support in the quest for play. Children need encouragement, time and space to play. But they also need permission from adults to be a little loud, fail, get a little (or a lot) messy, fail again and have fun while learning. It might mean a few extra loads of laundry or a few more Legos to avoid on your floor, but your child will thank you, and so will their brain.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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