It's a typical morning in the Blue Room, one of the two 4-year-old preschool classes at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood.
At the little table under the windows, several children are serving breakfast to the dolls. "Do you want more pancakes, baby?" a girl with curly hair asks the doll seated in a tiny high chair. A few other children are gathered at another table, arranging colorful shapes on a magnetic board. One little boy bites his lip as he shifts and repositions the shapes, then a small, satisfied smile creeps across his face as he surveys his work. In a far corner of the room, three boys discuss the spaceship they're building out of Legos and wooden blocks.
While it may look like the children are "just playing," there's actually a tremendous amount of learning going on.
"In the early years, play is children's work," explains Karen Appel, the school's director. "In a play-based curriculum, the learning is facilitated by the teachers, but the children are the leaders. They take the initiative and come up with their own ideas."
An intense exchange of ideas is exactly what's going on among the three spaceship-builders. In fact, there seems to be a lot more discussion going on than actual building: How big should the spaceship be? How many Legos will they need? What size blocks should they use? And how are they going to attach everything together?
"That's a perfect example of how play is a critical factor in children's social and emotional development," Appel says. "Through playing, children learn to work together, to negotiate and how to learn in a room of others."
Playing also helps children deal with their emotions, says psychologist Fran Stott of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago. "Play is the primary coping mechanism children use to deal with their fears and anxieties."
Through pretend play, acting out roles and using dolls, toys and other objects, children process emotions such as anger and frustration-for example, by pretending to be the Mommy or the Daddy and "making the cows go to sleep early."
Since their verbal skills are still developing, children can't always talk about their emotions, but they can act them out, according to Gail Conway, interim director of the Chicago Metropolitan Association for the Education of Young Children. "Play provides an opportunity for building self-esteem and having a 'safe' way to express themselves."
This is one reason why most children's hospitals have playrooms. "Children don't always understand everything they see and hear," she says, "and sometimes this increases their fear. The play is therapeutic, and helps 'normalize' children's situations."
But are they learning?
As Conway points out, legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in a "push for standards that presents a conundrum" in determining how much play is appropriate in a preschool classroom and how much of the day should be devoted to other approaches, including observation and direct instruction.
"A question parents ask all the time is, 'When are you going to teach them the letters?' " Appel says. It's then her job to educate the parents, by showing them how developmental and academic areas are learned together in a play-based curriculum.
"All of the ways that children play integrate academic learning," she explains. "An art activity-painting, for example-involves many different skills." Using a variety of brushes and materials helps children develop arm strength and finger control-skills essential for writing. When a teacher observes, "I see you made a big blue circle and a smaller green circle," a child learns the language he needs to identify shapes, sizes and colors. When children are allowed to freely choose and mix colors, they make guesses about what will happen when they mix particular colors.
Stott calls this the "what if" approach-the true scientific method of prediction, experiment and conclusion-the same method they'll use years from now, in high school biology class.
"Even building with blocks helps children grasp science and math concepts," Appel says. Just the one activity of building a block tower involves comparing and classifying different objects, such as blocks of different sizes, shapes and weights, and provides hands-on lessons in counting, adding and physics. "If you listen to the children, you hear them say, 'These blocks are as tall as I am,' 'How many blocks did we use,' and so on; these are basic math concepts."
Block play also enhances children's creativity and imagination, she adds. "They're trying to figure out things like, 'How high can we build our tower? How are we going to keep it from falling down?' They have to do a lot of planning and problem solving, and figure out what materials to use, and how to use them."
At the Child Development Laboratory Center at Kennedy-King College in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, a variety of play activities help children learn essential skills and concepts. "The children turned the dramatic play area of the classroom into a McDonald's," says assistant director Anna Russell, "and they started to talk about money, which involves many math concepts and skills-counting, the value of numbers, one-to-one correspondence. Then they said, 'We need a sign.' This is the first step in reading: connecting symbols to meaning-learning that symbols mean something."
The children also have journals in which they are free to "write" whatever they like, including drawing pictures, and, as children develop more skills, writing letters and numbers. In the science area of the classroom, the teachers brought in a bucket of snow one day and placed it on the table. "This encouraged the children to ask open-ended questions and explore and talk about the properties of snow."
Teachers as facilitators
Both the Kennedy-King and the Horwich Jewish Community Center preschools are among several hundred area preschools accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which has a set of standards a school must meet to receive the organization's seal of approval.
"Setting up the environment for failure-free learning is crucial," Conway says.
One way teachers do this is by structuring the classroom environment in a way that enables children to delve into their interests. This includes everything from providing appropriate, interesting materials to arranging the classroom furniture and making the daily schedule.
A glance around the Blue Room illustrates this. While everyone in the room is busy, the quietest people are the two teachers. They're sitting in little chairs at opposite ends of the room, near small groups of children playing, but not so close as to be "in" the play. Now and then they make comments or suggestions: one teacher helps the girls who are feeding the dolls find the plastic teapot and then gives them a couple of real teabags; the other teacher engages a boy wearing a red baseball cap in a conversation about the names of the magnetic shapes he's working with.
But throughout the day, they're taking notes-recording what the children are doing and jotting down little snippets of their conversation-and occasionally taking pictures. Within a couple of days, much of this documentation will show up on the posters, photo collages and displays of children's art work that line the hallway outside the classrooms, in order to share the children's day-to-day experiences with the parents and allow them to see what, and how, their children are learning.
Parents and play
Obviously, if children are learning whenever they're playing, then a lot of that learning is going to take place when they're not in school.
Dr. Michael Smith, a child psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says parents don't need to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their children have "productive" play experiences.
"There's a lot of pressure on parents to provide structured learning activities, and to sign their kids up for classes and competitive sports, but kids are fairly remarkable and resilient," he says. "They will learn through just playing, as long as they have good materials."
That doesn't mean, though, that you absolutely have to rush out and buy the latest "Baby Einstein" videos and expensive imported puzzles. A variety of traditional toys, like dolls, blocks, Legos, board games and drawing materials, along with enough space and free time, will allow for plenty of high-quality play. Educational videos and computer games, in appropriate amounts, also help children develop certain skills. "And don't forget playing outside," he adds. "Swinging on a swing is a great physics lesson."
According to at least one parent, the benefits of a play-based curriculum go way beyond academics.
Carol Gordon is a psychologist in private practice in Arlington Heights and the mother of three former preschoolers. Gillian, Shelby and Alex, now aged 15, 12 and 8, all attended a play-based preschool. "One of the reasons I chose the school was because I didn't want my kids to have worksheets, repetition and rote learning at that age," Gordon says. "There are all different kinds of intelligence and play allowed them to discover their own strengths. My kids were well prepared for kindergarten because their preschool nurtured their own curiosity and made them feel that their questions were important and special."
She adds, "The things they learned through play were more important than knowing all the numbers and letters: confidence, self-esteem, a love for learning-that's a strong, wonderful foundation."
In a well-structured preschool program, there should be so many possibilities, Russell says, that "any given situation is an opportunity for learning. Play is children's work; teachers and parents give them the tools to do their work."
Dr. Michael Smith, a child psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, suggests asking the following questions when considering a preschool:
1. What is the school's philosophy on how children will learn?
2. How are skills such as pre-reading, math and writing taught?
3. What opportunities are there for hands-on activities?
4. How much of the school day is devoted to unstructured play, in which the children are free to follow their own interests?
5. What is the teacher's role?
Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.