Why We Play – Making the Case for Play-based Learning

At Alto International School, our Preschool and early Elementary School classrooms are centered around play as a means to develop skills that prepare students for learning and working in today’s world.

The importance and value of play-based learning during the Preschool years and into the early years of elementary school (and, let’s be honest, even into adulthood when we can find the time) has gained attention amongst educators in recent years. On its simplest level, play is fun and children are naturally and intrinsically motivated to play. Developmentally, play is an authentic and accessible way for all young children to interact with one another and to explore and investigate their surroundings.

Play is three dimensional, not two dimensional.

Children need to touch, manipulate, communicate, build, take apart, create, pretend, explore, dig, and cooperate to develop skills. The skills and information children acquire in the process of play are critical for learning as they move into middle and high school as well as in life beyond the classroom. There are several resources and research studies to support the notion that play is at the heart of learning for young children. A stroll through Alto’s Preschool and early Elementary classrooms, however, says it all:

Every day in our Preschool, students are given ample time for free exploration during which the entire Preschool campus is open for play. The first skill practiced by our Preschool students each day is making a decision about which activity they wish to participate in. Some students select the same activity day after day. They will repeat the skills they are working on while also diving deeper into the project. This repetition allows students to compare and contrast outcomes from day to day. It allows them to follow through with what happened the previous day and to plan for the day(s) ahead. Other students in our Preschool classes select a different activity each day. Sometimes they are eagerly engaged with an activity that a teacher introduced in the morning and that they wish to continue (cooking, building, or crafting) while at other times they are drawn to the activity selected by a peer or even the desire for some quiet alone time with a book or puzzle. They are making decisions about how to spend their time and with whom to engage.

Alto’s Preschool is buzzing with activity, conversations, disputes, negotiations, presentations, inquiries, noise, and laughter.

Once activities are selected, the Preschool is buzzing with activity, conversations, disputes, negotiations, presentations, inquiries, noise, and laughter. A student dresses up in the pretend play area. He tries on different personas while negotiating with peers what parts they will play and what the setting and context of the play will be; how will the story unfold? While acting their roles, they are communicating, building vocabulary, taking turns, resolving conflicts that arise, and making decisions. They are performing, watching to see how peers respond to their antics, and developing resilience as they take risks.

Outside, other students are working feverishly in the large sandbox. There are shovels, dump trucks, wooden blocks, large branches and logs from a recently cut tree, a water faucet, bowls/cups, and lots and lots of sand. Students are pushing trucks, digging trenches, and planning what will happen next. The gross motor skills are hard at work as students take risks and try to lift large logs. They cooperate and advocate as they seek the help of a peer to place the heavy logs in just the right way to stop the flow of water from a recently filled pool.

In another classroom, two children are balancing on a teeterboard while discussing which instruments to play. One of the children hops off the board, leaving the other to maintain her balance, and runs over to a basket to grab a tambourine and offer it to her friend. She shakes off the offer and suggests a different instrument. The two go back and forth several times before settling on the right tunes for their mini-concert.

At a woodworking space nearby, students are equipped with goggles and hammers to nail spare pieces of wood together. If you get close, between the bangs of the hammer, you can hear the students describing, imaginatively, what they are building. Even though what they build in little way resembles what they describe, they are exercising gross motor and fine motor control while developing vocabulary and exercising creativity.

Play is synonymous with learning.

Lessons in literacy, vocabulary, communication, cooperation, creativity, numeracy, conflict resolution, fine motor, gross motor, role-playing, decision making, impulse control happen throughout the day as students “play.”  Play is synonymous with learning in these early years of growth and development. At Alto International School, we are proud to provide an environment in which young learners can grow and explore and take risks.

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