The Value of "I Played" and the Importance of Early Childhood Education
written by Lower School Head Cathy North and Director of Instructional Programs Sherri Hoyt
As parents pick up their preschool or prekindergarten children from school, they often ask the question, “What did you do today?” The most beautiful answer a child may give is, “I played!” Although this response may sound simple, it represents an entire spectrum of skill development. During the early childhood years, defined as birth to age eight by the NAEYC, a child’s brain develops faster than any other point in their lives. They develop cognitive skills, foundational social skills, a sense of self-esteem, awareness of the world and an early moral framework.
Positive early experiences make a difference in your child’s lifelong academic and social success and have a direct effect on the adult they will become. Early childhood education is critical, offering short - and longterm benefits for emotional, physical, cognitive and social development. It’s important to examine the benefits that an early childhood education will provide your child and select a program that is best matched for their needs.
What Does Skill Development Look Like in an Early Childhood Classroom?
An early childhood classroom should look, sound, and feel different from an elementary classroom because children at this age engage in more complex play. When children say “I played” they may really be saying:
“I learned how to work on a team!” A structured environment promotes opportunities for children to interact, collaborate and problem-solve with classmates. Classroom space and time are organized to encourage social interaction and development. This could be gathering students for circle time to sing songs or read a story, arranging centers for skill building or providing materials for students to build, explore, and create as they discuss and collaborate with their peers.
“I was independent and confident! I practiced self-help skills by putting my coat and boots on, talking eye to eye with my friend and independently cleaning up my materials.” Children’s sense of self-worth grows as they learn to take care of themselves and help others. Our teachers offer opportunities for children to practice leadership, self-care and decision-making by allowing each student to be responsible for various classroom jobs and by providing several choices of activities. Children learn how to manage the transitions of the classroom, such as taking turns, listening and engaging during circle time.
“I was an explorer and made discoveries!” Preschool children have active imaginations and learn through make-believe play. Sand tables, water tables, magnetic walls, mud kitchens, natural playgrounds, small and large blocks and materials to move around, paints to mix together, costumes, and props all provide valuable opportunities for students to build, create, explore and ask questions. Praising children for the process of discovery, asking questions, exploring, problem-solving, and collaboration are more important than the end product they create. Furthermore, exploration areas provide opportunities for children to progress from solitary play, to one-on-one play, to group play, expanding their communication and social skills.
“I was a mathematician! I learned about size, shape, length, weight, balance and spatial relationships of objects.” Our early childhood teachers work with students to recognize, count, and compare numbers, shapes, and patterns — all expanding numeracy skills. What children perceive as playing with blocks and other objects is really the foundation of basic number concepts. These are the building blocks of mathematical thinking they will use throughout their lives and positive first experiences with these concepts is essential.
“I was an author! I told an amazing story that my teacher put in my journal with a picture that I read to my friends at group time.” Between the ages of 3 and 5, a child’s vocabulary grows from 900 to 2,500 words and their sentences become longer and more complex. Our early childhood program offers children many opportunities to develop pre-literacy skills through a print and language-rich environment, read alouds, rhyming and songs. Our teachers help students grow their language skills by asking guiding questions and introducing new vocabulary throughout the day. Cognitive skills are strengthened by engaging in a wide range of hands-on activities that challenge students to observe closely, ask questions, try new tasks or solve a problem.
“I was an engineer! I exercised my problem-solving and fine-motor skills to design and build a model train to move blocks from one place to another.” Participation in preschool allows students to explore their environment and to challenge themselves in new ways. Digging a channel for a small toy boat to pass, riding a tricycle, and connecting large blocks to build a fort, are tasks that help develop gross motor skills. Activities such as threading beads on pipe cleaners, creating works of art with clay or cutting with scissors all help develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. In our early childhood classrooms, we provide authentic experiences for motor skills development coupled with critical thinking activities, such as asking students how they might move a set of blocks from one area to another and challenging them to build a solution to test their ideas.
Setting the Stage for Growth and Success
So what will your child do in preschool? Will they be a musician? A scientist? An inventor? In the right early childhood program, the answer is all of the above. Preschool is an essential opportunity for guided growth. These types of robust early experiences will set the stage for success through your child’s academic years and beyond.