Play With a Purpose

Play With a Purpose
A Caregiver’s Guide to Play.
By: Ingrid Wold

Children learn as they play and play is the main way children learn about the world and develop their ideas. While we are the ones who provide the materials that children play with, it’s important to let them decide how to use them- within reason, of course! Is that a pot for cooking alphabet soup or a helmet to wear on their head in a battle against the dragons? Is that cardboard box a dog house for a stuffed puppy or a submarine for an undersea adventure? How about that scarf? Is it a bull-fighting cape or a blanket for baby? When children aren’t given limitations on the “correct” way to use an object the possibilities are endless!

Play Promotes School Success in Many Ways
Researchers are finding more and more connections between children’s play and the learning and social development that helps them succeed in school. For example, pretend play helps children learn to think abstractly and to look at things from someone else’s perspective. Pretend play is also connected to early literacy, mathematical thinking, and problem-solving.

When children play:
• They test their developing ideas with objects, people, and situations—the key ability for academic learning
• They develop many kinds of skills together—physical, social, emotional, thinking, and language
• They are doing things they are interested in, so they have a natural motivation to learn
• They develop concepts and skills together. For example, as a child learns to write the letters in her name, she is also learning the concept that each letter represents a sound. And she is very motivated by the meaning—her own name! Children are more likely to remember skills and concepts they have learned by doing things that are meaningful to them. They learn from other children and develop social skills by playing together.

When Children Play, They Learn Skills That Contribute to School Success
Through pretend play, children learn to use their imaginations to represent objects, people, and ideas.
What you see:
• A toddler flaps her arms, pretending to be a butterfly
• Another picks up a banana, holds it to his ear like a telephone, and says, “Hello.”
• A preschooler builds a firehouse with blocks.
How it Promotes School Success:
If children can use one thing to represent something else, it’s easier for them to understand that letters represent sounds and numbers represent quantities. And later on they will be able to their imaginations to visualize historical events or scientific ideas.

Using Language and Telling Stories
Through pretend play, children develop their skills in using language and in telling and understanding stories.
What you see:
• Children act out scenes in the housekeeping corner
• A child makes her stuffed animal “talk,” telling a story
How it promotes school success:
Oral language skills and storytelling are the building blocks of reading and writing, as well as subjects like social studies and science.

Using Experimentation and Logic
When children play with materials such as blocks, clay, sand, and water, they develop skills in logic. They experiment with cause and effect, with counting and sorting things and solving problems.
What you see:
• Children experiment with blocks to figure out how to build a stable structure
• Children count the number of cups needed for a “tea party”
• Children pour sand into different sized containers.
How it promotes school success:
This practice in experimenting, observing, comparing, and working with shapes, sizes, and quantities forms the basis for understanding math and science and for all higher-order thinking.

Developing Self-control and Social Skills
As children share materials and play together, they learn to cooperate, listen to others, stand up for their own ideas, handle frustration, and empathize.
What you see:
• Children negotiate over roles in dramatic play: “We can both be pilots if we have two seats.”
• One child cries and another says, “Don’t worry, your mom is coming soon.”
How it promotes school success:
Many studies have shown that kids with good social skills and emotional health do better in school and are more likely to avoid dangerous behavior as teenagers. Through play, children develop their ability to form relationships with other children and with teachers.

Learning to Enjoy Learning
When children do activities they have chosen, learning is enjoyable. It’s based on their own interests and gives them a sense of competence.
What you see:
• Classrooms organized with different activity centers (blocks, dramatic play, painting and drawing, reading, science, etc.)
• Children encouraged to choose their own activities.
How it promotes school success:
Studies show that children’s attitudes of curiosity, motivation, and competence are key to success in elementary school.

The Teacher is Key to Play-based Learning
Children learn more through play when they have well-trained teachers who know how to respond to, guide, and extend their play to increase learning—and how to assess their development by observing their play.
Teachers can:
• Guide and extend play to help children learn more
• Respond to play: A teacher sees a child playing and builds vocabulary by providing new words: “That’s interesting. You’ve lined up the animals from tiny to gigantic.”
• Extend play: A teacher hears children making silly rhymes: “You’re juicy, goosey, foosey.” She extends this play by teaching songs that play with the sounds of language, such as “Apples and Bananas.” She knows that this helps children learn to recognize the separate sounds in words.

A teacher observes a child pretending a chair is a car and “driving.” She encourages imagination by asking “Where are you going? What do you see along the way?” Guide play: One week a teacher turns the dress-up area into a shoe store. Children practice language and social skills by acting out “customers” and “sales people.” They learn new vocabulary (canvas, boots). They use art to make signs for the store. Some older preschoolers may write letters and words for the signs, or practice simple math by making change for purchases.
• Assess children’s development by watching them play
• Observe the child’s activities: Seeing a child line up toy dinosaurs by size shows her understanding of size comparisons and putting things in order.
• Listen to the child talk: Hearing a child talk about what letters “say” shows his understanding that letters represent words.
• Take photos: A series of photos of a child’s block structures over time shows that she is learning more about spatial relations.

(Tepperman, 2007, p.1

Items that encourage play:
• Scarves, pieces of material, light blankets
• Bowls, cups, spoons, containers and tubs made out of wood and plastic
• Boxes, baskets and crates of all shapes and sizes
• Wood planks and pieces of wood, blocks, logs, big branches, tree stumps
• Dolls of different nationalities and gender
• Dress up clothes, jewelry, hats and shoes
• Art supplies- paper, paint, glue, brushes, sponges, objects for gluing
• Hoops, tunnels and balls of all sizes

Some things to think about:
Pick one of the above items. Can you come up with a non-traditional use for it? How about five different uses? Ten? If you didn’t know what an item was “supposed” to be, you could get very creative, right?
Group activity:
In groups of two or more, give each group a large cardboard box.
Each box should contain:
4 scarves
10 or more wood blocks
1 doll
A few plastic containers (such as margarine tubs, cottage cheese tubs, yogurt cups…)
1 lightweight blanket or sheet
1 hula hoop
Have each group spend 20 minutes (or more if it’s taking some time to get comfortable) playing and coming up with new uses for these items. Then have a group discussion and talk about what they did. Encourage everyone to include more items that encourage play into their classroom and the playground. And have fun!!!