play is a child's work

by Marge Hampton

"A child's play is his 'work', and the 'toys' are his words" says Dr. Gary Landreth, a noted play therapist. It has been clearly proven by child development researchers that young children learn best through play. They are concrete learners and learn by using all their senses. They must experience their world in order to make sense of it. Play give young children "hands-on" activities for learning about life. Most childhood programs that are NAEYC accredited, plan their programs around this theory. This article will tell about different areas of play that can be used in a preschool.

All areas of a child's development are addressed in the planning for the day. The areas of development addressed are: cognitive, fine motor, gross motor, social/emotional, and faith. These plans are developed by the individual classroom teacher, with supervision by the curriculum coordinator, and are designed to follow the Developmentally Appropriate Program developed by NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children).

Circle time:

This group time is generally the time the unit of the week is introduced and discussed. In the beginning of the year the teacher will be anxious to have the children learn the names of their classmates, so she/he will play games to help the children become familiar with one another.

What children learn: The children learn how to organize their thoughts. They have many opportunities to develop their language and enlarge their vocabulary. "Shared knowledge" is information that society assumes we know. Learning the words to familiar songs of childhood, such as "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" , etc. is an example of such knowledge. Children assume you know the words to familiar songs such as these.


Children address the process of cooking. it is also fun for a child to participate in a "grown-up" activity. Cooking activities in the classroom are generally tied to the unit of the week.

What children learn: Cooking is a basic life skill. Competence and independence are fostered through this activity. Math skills are always a part of the process of cooking since counting and measuring are included in each recipe. Stirring, dicing, and adding ingredients builds fine-motor skills and teaches sequencing. It is important for the child to learn about good nutrition. A child also discovers how things change if you alter the environment: liquid batter becomes a cake when baked; juice cups become popsicles when frozen. Cooking also helps a child's reasoning ability. He learns cause and effect.

Outdoor Play:

Outdoor play is one of the favorite parts of any child's day. The outside play area should have enough space and sturdy equipment that a child can use his/her imagination while exercising. Children's imaginations are boundless and the playground should offer every opportunity for expression of those ideas. Running, swinging, climbing, jumping, riding tricyles, and digging in the sand are building the child's physical abilities.

What children learn: This outdoor play continues the development of the child's gross-motor (large-muscle) skills. The cross-lateral movement (right arm/left leg and vice versa) involved is critical to a child's later success in reading and writing.

Creative Expression:

Opportunities for the child to experience using different art media in creating their "masterpieces" is essential. A good art center will have materials that can be used in a variety of ways for projects. An easel is available in all our rooms, toddler through pre-k.

What children learn: When art is approached as a process, not a project, the child learns that he/she is limited only by his/her imagination. As everyday objects are transformed into imaginary bugs, sculptures, etc. the child discovers that a world of play can be created. Using materials in an art project reinforces and expands on the information a child has already learned in other contexts. Fine-motor skills are developed through art activities. Small-muscle control is needed in order to manipulate clay, cut with scissors, paint with a brush, and color with markers or crayons.Creating these "masterpieces" builds a child's self-esteem. The finished product, on display on the refrigerator, validates a child's sense of worth. This provides another opportunity for a child to say "I can do it!"


Young children enjoy both listening to music and making their own. Music is a universal language. Learning to move your body through space in time to music (creative movement), is a creative way to tap into a child's imagination and artistic side.

What children learn: Music gives the child the opportunity to connect the outside world of movement and sound with the inner world of feelings and observations. Children learn music by listening and imitating. Children are learning prereading skills as they copy rhythmic patterns of words. They hear differences such as: fast and slow and loud and soft.


Familiarization with the Spanish language is taught through simple stories, songs, fingerplays, and games. The goal is to instill in the child the desire to speak another language and to encourage communication and appreciation of the Spanish-speaking culture.

What children learn: Research has shown that when a foreign language is introduced at an early age, the individual will be able to learn that language much easier than those who have never been exposed. Children learn simple phrases, colors, shapes and numbers. Both receptive language and expressive language are emphasized.

Free-Play Activities:

Although referred to as "free", this period is very much a planned activity. The freedom to choose among many different activities is provided for the child. The teacher has created the envionment and arranged the options for the child to choose from. This is not a "time off" period for the teacher. It is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the child, offer guidance when appropriate, noting progress and/or problems, and listening quietly. The teacher will learn much about the child by listening as he/she play. (blocks, sociodramatic, manipulatives, cooperative, puzzles, books, cleanup)

Sociodramatic Play:

This "housekeeping / dress-up" area in the classroom should be filled with items, clothing, and props that encourage young children in playing "make-believe". Props that should be included, but not limited to are: kitchen items, dolls (multiethnic, washable, unbreakable), telephones, hats, purses and tote bags, etc.

What children learn: This area in the room allows the child to make sense of the grown-up world. Research demonstrates that children who are active in pretend play are usually more joyful and cooperative, more willing to share and take turns, and have larger vocabularies than children who are less imaginative.

Manipulative Toys:

Fine-motor control is developed by playing with a variety of toys such as Legos, Bristle Blocks, Play-Doh, Peg-Boards, large beads to thread, and stacking and nesting materials.

What children learn: These manipulative toys help develop a child's fine-motor skills, which is a precursor to being able to write. These toys are also often used in "making-believe".

Sand / Water Table:

The sensory table or tub is filled with sand or similar material such as grits or rice. Beans become toxic when eaten raw, so they are never used in the sensory tubs. Children enjoy the feel and experience of digging, pouring, etc. these materials. The tub/table may also be used for water when it becomes a bathtub for dolls or sink for toy dishes.

What children learn: Practical math lessons are learned through measuring as they pour from and into containers of differing sizes. Fine-motor skills are also being enhanced as the child uses a sifter. Eye-hand coordination is also developed. This play is soothing as well. When items of differing compositions are put in the water, the child learns what floats and what sinks.


Puzzles in the classroom should vary in their complexity according to the age group. They should also be made of different materials.

What children learn: Puzzles develop a child's abstract thinking ability as they must be able to see a space and visualize what belongs in that space. Fine-motor coordination is developed when fitting the pieces into place. Success can be enjoyed by all children by having puzzles for varied skill levels.


The books in the room should reflect the age group within the room and should be made of appropriate materials for that age group. They should also reflect various ethnic and cultural groups as well as non-sexist material. The reading area should be a comfortable "soft" area which is carpeted and includes pillows.

What children learn: Children learn language skills from books. They also learn sequencing and problem solving. They become more aware of the world outside of themselves. Whether they are looking at a book by themselves, or being read to as part of the group, when you make books a part of a child's day you set the stage for a lifelong interest in reading.

Cooperative Play:

Very young children, two and under, basically have a parallel style of play. They play "beside" another child rather than "with". By age three children not only enjoy playing by themselves, but you begin seeing cooperative play as well. They will play in small groups or even the class as a whole working on a project. This play may be either child initiated or teacher directed.

What children learn: Children learn to respect the ideas of others by working together. Social skills and social competence are underlying goals of early chilhood education. Problem solving is an additional benefit of cooperative play.

Some information in this article adapted from writings by Marian Edelman Borden.

Marge Hampton has 35 years experience as a director of preschools. She is retired. See her website at:

1200 Clover Hill Rd
Mansfield, Texas

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