What Are Children Learning When They Play
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Circle Time

Generally teachers begin this group time with a specific topic for discussion. It may be a topic related to a project the class is working on, or it may focus on a specific skill. For example, in the beginning of the year, the teacher may play games to help the children learn the names of each of their classmates. Students may also use the time for "show and tell." Teachers often also include music appreciation, group sings, and creative movement during circle time.

Some teachers hold circle time first thing in the morning as a way of organizing the class and the morning activities.

What's Learned These "chats" are an opportunity for the youngsters to learn how to organize their thoughts. As they talk about their experiences, children learn how to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. When a child learns the words to "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" or "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," this is an important part of a child's informal education. This is "shared knowledge"--that is information that society assumes you know. For example, other children assume you know the words to familiar folk songs.


Music Appreciation/Creative Movement

Children enjoy both listening to music and making their own. Whether it's a group sing-along, marching in a percussion band, playing a triangle, or making up new lyrics to old favorite tunes, music is the universal language. Creative movement, learning to move your body through space, in time to the music or while pretending to be a falling leaf, is a creative way to tap into a child's imagination and artistic side.

What's Learned Music helps children connect the outer world of movement and sound with the inner world of feelings and observations. Playing games or moving to music is a powerful first experience in the artistic process. Children learn music the same way they learn language--by listening and imitating.

Finger play promotes language development, fine-motor skills, and coordination, as well as self-esteem. Young children are proud when they sing a song and can do the accompanying finger movements.

Listening to music also teaches important prereading skills. As youngsters use small drums or other percussion instruments (homemade or store-bought), they can play the rhythmic pattern of words. They can learn to hear the differences between fast and slow, loud and soft, one at a time and together, etc. When they try new instruments, they notice how each variation changes the music.

Creative movement expands a child's imagination. It's also a fun method of physical fitness--an important goal of child development.


Art Projects

Some art projects are part of a theme that the class is studying. For example, as part of the seasons' curriculum, the children might gather pinecones, leaves, and acorns during a fall nature walk. They will later use them in art projects, such as to make leaf rubbings, to assemble in collages, or to use as decorations for picture frames.

A good art corner will be stocked with materials that can be used in a variety of ways for projects. There should also be easels for painting individually (although sometimes two children will work at the same easel to create a painting together).

What's Learned A good art project teaches a child that his creativity is limited only by his own imagination. By transforming everyday objects, such as empty paper towel rolls and egg cartons into sculptures, imaginary bugs, or spyglasses, a child discovers that he can create a world of play.

Using materials in an art project reinforces and expands on the information a child has already learned in other contexts. For example, let's assume that the art project of the day is to make rubbings of leaves collected during a nature walk the day before. If from a pile on the table, the child selects a dry leaf that crumbles easily, the youngster learns, in a concrete way, about life cycles in nature. Through trial and error, just like the scientist in a lab, the student might find that green leaves or shiny leaves hold up better for this art project.

Another art project might have the youngsters create a fall mural by pasting leaves, pinecones, and acorns on a large roll of paper. They might organize the project by sorting and classifying the leaves, by color, shape, and size. These are prereading and premath skills--as well as fun. In this same project, the group also learns social skills such as cooperative and group dynamics. Do the three-year-olds know this as they happily create a fall mural--probably not, but their teachers certainly do.

Art projects are also excellent for developing a child's fine-motor skills. It takes small-muscle control in order to manipulate clay, cut with scissors, paint with a brush, and color with markers or crayons. As these skills are practiced, they help a child gain mastery to cut with a knife, button his own shirt, and print his name.

Art projects build a child's self-esteem. The finished product, on display on the refrigerator, validates a child's sense of worth. It's another opportunity for a child to say, "I can do it!"

The process, not the product, is the most important element of preschool art projects.


Outdoors Play

Running, swinging, climbing, jumping, hopping, biking, digging in the sand--outdoor fun is one of the favorite parts of any young child's day. A good preschool playground will have enough space and sturdy equipment that a child can use his imagination while exercising. For example, the jungle gym structure might have connecting slides, firefighter poles to shimmy down and then inch up, tunnels to crawl through, a swinging bridge that connects one side of the apparatus to the other. A child will use multiple skills and create dozens of scenarios as he plays on this one structure. There should be equipment for digging, hauling, building, and riding.

What's Learned Outdoors play refines a 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. Playground time is also an opportunity to explore and manipulate a different environment.

Youngsters also love outdoor play because they can let loose their imaginations while getting physical. They can turn the jungle gym into a rocket ship, a castle, a firehouse--anything they choose.



Children enjoy cooking. Sometimes they like the product, but even if they don't, they always appreciate the process. It's fun to do something that is a grown-up activity--and discover that kids can do it too!

Preschools often tie cooking projects to other themes the class is working on. For example, in the fall, a class may take a pumpkin and use it in a variety of ways. For a large pumpkin, the class may first decorate it with markers and use the pumpkin as a centerpiece on the classroom table. Later, the teacher will cut open the pumpkin and the students can estimate how many seeds are in the pumpkin. Later the class can count the seeds and compare the total to the estimates. The class can also roast the pumpkin seeds for snack, and finally bake pumpkin bread.

What's Learned Since cooking is a basic life skill, it fosters a child's sense of competence and independence when he can do it. Math skills are also an important part of the process, as the cook needs to count and measure the ingredients. Cooking also refines small-motor skills as a child stirs, dices, and adds ingredients. It also teaches about nutrition-foods that are good for you and help you grow.

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. "If I don't put the juice cups in the freezer, they won't become Popsicles."


Snack Time

What do you remember as the highlight of your own school day--lunch time and recess? It's not all that different for preschoolers.

Snack time is an important part of the preschool experience. Whether the food is provided by the school, or on a rotating basis by the parents, or cooked by the students themselves, snack time--just like mealtime in your own home--is an opportunity to "break bread," share, and communicate. The snack is usually simple, crackers or a piece of fruit and juice.

Snack time can also be an opportunity for children to try new foods. One little boy brought in the usual graham crackers and apple juice for the class snack, but also brought in his personal favorite green olives. Surprisingly, several of the children were willing to taste the new delicacy!

What's Learned Snack time is an opportunity for a child to learn social skills as she chats with her friend in the seat next to her. Passing out the snack and distributing a napkin and cup to each child teaches one-to-one correspondence and counting skills. Pouring the juice from a small pitcher to an individual cup requires small-motor control. Cleanup time after snack is another educational opportunity. Again, a child's sense of competence and independence are reinforced. Snack time is also an opportunity for a child to associate mealtime with pleasant feelings.