With the increasing pressures of school readiness, many child care programs are actually cutting back on unstructured free play time. Pressured teachers believe that structured, teacher-led activities are the only way to help children be ready to read, do math, and understand science when they enter kindergarten. But what do we really know about young children and play? How does play help children learn?
Many adults are mistaken about play. We view "playing" as a frivolous activity, meant to fill empty waiting periods between more important activities. But for young children, play is the centerpiece of learning. Playing is not an "extra" for young children. It's actually the single most important way they explore, learn about the world and practice and perfect new skills.
When children play, they get to decide what materials to use, what to do and when to stop or change to a different activity. Children playing in a child care setting are testing out new materials, trying out roles, experimenting with cause and effect, making guesses and testing conclusions and practicing getting along with others. Researchers have shown that high-quality play experiences help improve children’s memory, social skills, oral language abilities, pre-reading and pre-math skills and school adjustment. All of these will be crucially important learning skills when children get to kindergarten and beyond.
To learn more about play and other ways to help children be ready for school, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: