Preschool — it’s not just about the sandbox anymore. As elementary school becomes more rigorous, so does preschool. Children are expected to learn certain skills in preschool so that they are prepared for elementary school. Considering the limited time in a preschool setting and the pressure for success later on, where does play fit in?
Play is work for preschoolers
Children are playful by nature. Their earliest experiences exploring with their senses lead them to play, first by themselves and eventually with others. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has included play as a criterion in its accreditation process for programs for young children. “They call it their work,” says Peter Pizzolongo, associate director for professional development at NAEYC. “When they’re learning and playing with joy, then it’s a positive experience. They develop a positive approach to learning.”
The teacher’s role as children grow
As children develop, their play becomes more sophisticated. Up until the age of 2, a child plays by himself and has little interaction with others. Soon after, he starts watching other children play but may not join in. This is particularly relevant to kids in multi-age settings where younger children can watch and learn from older preschoolers playing nearby.
Around 2½ to 3 years, a preschooler starts to play sitting next to another child, often someone with similar interests. This naturally shifts, through the use of language, to the beginnings of cooperative play. An adult can facilitate this process by setting up a space for two or more small bodies and helping children find the words to express their questions or needs.
Between 4 and 5 years, preschoolers discover they share similar interests and seek out kids like them. They discuss, negotiate and strategize to create elaborate play scenes; take turns; and work together toward mutual goals.
The preschool teacher’s role in the development of play is critical. “Parents should look to see that the teacher has organized the environment,” says Pizzolongo, “and is using her curriculum in a way that guides her to plan for how the children are going to be engaged in play. It really is a structured way of learning. It just looks like a different structure than what you would see in fourth grade.”
Types of play
Children’s play can be divided into categories, but the types of play often overlap.
- Dramatic — Fantasy-directed play with dressing up in costumes, assuming roles as characters, using toys to represent characters in stories, creating imaginary settings, and pretending to take on the roles of adults.
- Manipulative — Holding and handling small toys often used to build objects but also found in puzzles, characters, beads, etc.
- Physical — Using the whole body in activities with bikes, balls, jump ropes, hoops, play structures, etc.
- Creative — Using art materials such as paint, clay, markers, pencils, glue, etc. The play takes place in the process of using the materials, not in the end product.
Benefits of play
Through play, children develop skills they’ll use in their school years.
Both gross and fine motor development occur through play. When kids play outdoors, if they feel comfortable and supported, they’ll push themselves to new challenges and build motor skills. Developing fine motor skills, such as handling small objects, is a way for children to practice using their hands and fingers, which in turn builds the strength and coordination critical for writing skills. “When you’re a preschooler or toddler, your attention comes out in a different way,” explains Pizzolongo. “Your attention works best if your body is involved, as many parts of it as possible. So children learning to play where they’re physically engaged with materials and interacting with each other would work best.”
Children build language skills through cooperative play. Their success depends on their ability and patience in explaining themselves. Teachers repeat the words children say to help others understand. They also teach words about the objects the kids are interested in handling. Students may talk to themselves while playing side by side with other children and then begin to repeat what they hear or start talking to each other. This develops into back-and-forth communication about play, becoming increasingly sophisticated by age 4. Children will now set rules, have specific roles, express their interests or objections, and chatter about funny situations that occur in the course of play.
Play builds a strong sense of self-confidence. Trying to do a certain trick on a play structure or build with blocks is hard work for a preschooler. Teachers acknowledge these experiences by articulating what they observe and letting the preschooler absorb these accomplishments again. There are also therapeutic benefits to play that help all children. For example, understanding that a parent is going to work and will come back at pick-up time can be reinforced through a play scenario.
Listening, negotiating, and compromising are challenging for 4- and 5-year-olds. Though children at this age are still egocentric, or unable to think beyond their own needs, working with others helps them develop an awareness of differences in people around them. These experiences in preschool provide a foundation for learning how to solve problems and communicate with peers. Play also helps build positive leadership qualities for children who are naturally inclined to direct but must learn how to control their impulses.
Loss of play later
For many school-age kids, their time outside of school will include solitary time spent plugged into video games and computers, so it is especially critical for preschoolers to have the opportunity to develop naturally in their play.
Julie Nicholson, an early-childhood instructor at the Mills College School of Education in Oakland, Calif., notes, “We know from decades of research that young children’s play is very beneficial for their development, so we have to look at such immensely important topics as the decrease in children’s outdoor play, the loss of extended periods of unstructured time for children to engage in imaginative play, and the toys being marketed to children that are increasingly violent, sexualized, and closed-ended.”
Ask about play when choosing a preschool
When you tour preschools you’re considering, ask about their philosophy about play. Preschoolers need opportunities to play, prepared spaces for them to explore and responsive teachers to support their learning. Such a setting prepares children not only to become students who will work with others cooperatively and approach learning with joy, but also happier people who will not lose their love of play.
Research explains why toddlers have temper tantrums and the reasons behind bad behavior.
By Patty Onderko
With my 3-year-old twins in tow, I navigated several steep flights of subway stairs, managed four train transfers and arrived safely at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. I took photos of them in front of the giant Apatosaurus skeleton and imparted (probably erroneous, but who cares?) facts about the Jurassic era. I am the best. Mother. Ever!
To top off the special day, I decided to treat them to an educational toy at the gift shop. My son Theo wanted an astronaut, so I brought him to the space display and let him choose between three astronaut-themed items (I’m so smart to give my preschooler a sense of control by offering him a choice!). “No, astronaut!” he began to whine. “This is an astronaut,” I said brightly, pointing to one of the helmeted play figures. “No!” He then slapped all the items out of my hand and began screaming. Ten minutes later, after Theo had stomped on a dozen packages of freeze-dried ice cream, I tucked one boy under each arm and staggered out. I am the worst mother ever, I said to myself, embarrassed, drained and near tears.
Turns out, the scene at the museum was not all my fault, and it doesn’t mean my boy is “bad,” either. Michael Potegal, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, has spent the latest part of his professional career studying tantrums and how and why young children have such brutally emotional explosions. And what has he learned in that time? That their outbursts are as normal a biological response to anger and frustration as a yawn is to fatigue. So normal, in fact, that you can make a science out of the progression of a tantrum and predict one down to the second. Kids from about 18 months to 4 years are simply hardwired to misbehave, he says. And that means “nurture” (i.e., you) isn’t always to blame.
The Mush Behind the Madness: Your Tot’s Noggin
Let’s take a quick tour of the human brain, stopping at a little blob of gray matter behind the eyebrows called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and controls social behavior. It’s also the last area of the brain to develop; it has only just begun to mature at age 4. That immaturity—as difficult as it makes parenting a toddler or a preschooler—may serve an important developmental role in the acquisition of language (the most significant social tool humans have), says a new report out of the University of Pennsylvania. The authors posit that the underdeveloped PFC is what allows young children to master a new language much more easily than adults. Simply put, our kids’ more disagreeable behavior may be an evolutionary trade-off for the sake of human communication.
Okay, so they’ve got these mushy brain parts that make them prone to outbursts and irrational displays of emotion, but there’s another factor at play in the toddler/preschooler’s often difficult behavior: stress. “Kids this age think magically, not logically,” explains Gina Mireault, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Johnson State College, in Vermont. “Events that are ordinary to us are confusing and scary to them. They don’t understand that the bathtub drain won’t swallow them or that their uncle can’t really snatch their nose.” And if you’re not sure whether or not a simple bath will end in your demise, needless to say, you’re going to feel pretty confused and prone to anxiety—on a daily basis.
This feeling of heightened arousal causes our bodies to release cortisol, known as the “fight or flight” hormone. Maybe it should be called “tantrum juice:” Cortisol increases blood pressure, speeds up breathing rates and may lead to confused or unclear thinking (sound like anyone you know?). This anxiety is developmentally typical in moderation, but chronic anxiety or stress—Is my stuffed Tigger going to come alive and eat me?—is not; it can turn kids into virtual bundles of kindling primed to ignite at the slightest provocation.
How to Handle a Tasmanian Tot
The next time your child has an episode, Potegal recommends asking yourself “What function does this inappropriate behavior serve?” If your tyke is looking for attention or a “tangible” (toy, food or other treat), the best response is to ignore the behavior and maintain your own emotional composure. My friend Mana Heydarpour of New York City learned this lesson the hard way: When she told her strong-willed 3-year-old, Ella, that she couldn’t watch her favorite TV show, she screamed, “I don’t like you! I’m so disappointed with you!” “It made my blood boil so much that I couldn’t help yelling back at her,” Heydarpour says. As a result, Ella’s fit lasted for half an hour. Potegal calls this the Anger Trap. “If you get just as mad and irrational as your child, it’s like throwing gas on a fire,” he says.
But he warns of another trap, too: the Sadness Trap. “When you comfort a child in the middle of a tantrum, you reinforce the behavior. Instead, say ‘I’m sorry you’re upset. When you calm down, I’ll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.’” This way, you offer support and sympathy while still showing your tot how to regulate his emotions. “Since that meltdown, I’ve learned to say ‘I’m not talking to you while you’re behaving like this,’” Heydarpour says. “Ella composes herself so much faster when I manage to do that.”
But the above strategy doesn’t apply to an “escape” tantrum: a child going bonkers because he doesn’t want to do whatever it is you want him to (clean up, sit at the table, etc.). In this case, ignoring him gives him what he wants: You’re no longer demanding that he wear his coat, or whatever it is that needs to be done. Putting him in a time-out chair doesn’t work, either, since that’s time he’s not putting on his jacket. “Every second he’s not complying, he’s winning,” says Potegal. Instead, tell your kid that if he doesn’t get dressed in five seconds, you’re going to put your hands on his and do it together. If your tiny rebel makes no move after the five seconds are up, which he won’t at first, take his hands in yours and gently force the coat on. “It’s not meant to be pleasant,” admits Potegal, but it should never include physical harm. If your child begins to slap or bite you, continue putting the coat on and then put him in time-out (or take away a privilege, if that’s your standard discipline tactic). That way, your child sees he still has to wear the coat (so his protests were ineffective) and now has an additional consequence for his unacceptable behavior.
Toddlers are a literal force of nature who confound even the most calm and prepared. But there’s a silver lining to these flop-and-flail-filled years: Just as kids can quickly slip into anger and sadness, so can they slip out of them. The average tantrum lasts about three minutes, according to Potegal’s research. That’s why, shortly after a tantrum, your kid is back to playing as if nothing happened, while you’re still quaking from the event a half hour later. His immature PFC (that mushy part responsible for social cues) allows him to move on without dwelling on past hurts. “Toddlers can transition from sad to happy and from angry to calm incredibly easily,” says Potegal. So enjoy that post-freak-out cuddle, and gird yourself for the next round.
The Life of a Tantrum
A minute-by-minute breakdown of what happens when your tot blows his top.
Uh-oh. Grocery-store meltdown in aisle 3.
Foot stomping by this point means it will be a short one.
Screaming and kicking: His anger has reached its peak.
And just like that, it’s over. He’s now looking for comfort.
Wow. He’s acting like nothing ever happened.
If his fits always last this long, talk to your doc.
By Karen Golembeski, M.ED
As the new school year begins, parents and teachers of preschoolers have much to think about. Research in recent years has highlighted the importance of early education, and we all want the best for the children we care about. Parents and teachers of four-year-olds might not realize, however, that this is also the perfect time to begin thinking about kindergarten.
Many parents and teachers do not start thinking about preparing for the transition to kindergarten until a month or two just before kindergarten begins, because they may not be aware that successful transition to kindergarten is a process that begins the year before. Whether your child is in preschool, daycare or at home, the transition from early education programs to kindergarten can be a stressful time for both parents and educators. It is important to have tools and resources that can inform practice and guide children and families through the process.
Through community building and early recognition and response to children’s individual learning needs throughout the pre-kindergarten year, parents and educators can provide for the smooth flow of information about specific children from home and/or early learning programs to kindergarten teachers.
Starting early to prepare for kindergarten does not mean learning kindergarten skills in preschool, but rather, it involves making sure children have preschool skills such as being able to retell a simple story and being able to recognize the letters in their name when they enter kindergarten. If they have these skills they are more likely to be able to start the following year strong.
The year before kindergarten is the time to learn important skills, such as tracing the shapes of letters and numbers on paper, following simple instructions, recognizing the title of a book, and matching rhyming sounds. All of these skills are important for future school success, because together they form a foundation of strong prereading and prewriting skills necessary for future work with letters and sounds in kindergarten.
Getting ready for kindergarten involves more than just learning the ABCs. Along with juggling learning letters, sounds, numbers, and rhymes, new social experiences like taking turns and going to school for an entire day need to be considered as well. For many children, kindergarten is their first experience in a formal school setting.
Tasks that may be second nature to older children, like properly holding a pencil and listening to a story with a group, are some of the vital skills kindergarteners will be expected to know when school begins. It is important for you to gradually expose children to these types of experiences during the year before kindergarten so your child will become familiar with them. Joining a play group, attending story hour at the local library, and encouraging interaction with new friends are great ways to introduce your child to new social experiences, which will help them do better in school both academically and socially.
An additional benefit of preparing early for kindergarten is learning more about what activities excite and frustrate your child. This is valuable information to share with kindergarten teachers; the more a kindergarten teacher knows about a child in the beginning of the year, the better it will be for the child as the year moves forward. Keeping a list of activities you have tried with your child and making note of skills your child has and has not mastered are great pieces of information to pass on to kindergarten teachers.
Getting ready for kindergarten is a process that starts long before kindergarten begins. By starting early and learning new skills along the way, your child will have a strong start to the exciting year of learning that lies ahead.
There are many free resources available on the internet and through early education organizations that provide ideas for introducing children to new experiences at home and in the community. Below are some helpful resources for parents, educators and day care providers. Check out our Transitioning to Kindergarten Toolkit for resources for administrators, pre-K teachers, child care providers, kindergarten teachers, and parents to enhance children’s transition to kindergarten.
- Early Childhood Research & Policy Briefs: Transition to Kindergarten
- Getting Ready
- Foundation for Early Learning
- Getting School Ready
- Enhancing the Transition to Kindergarten: Linking Children, Families, & Schools
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