Preschoolers gather to decorate and build a train from cardboard pieces. But the learning activity isn’t over once construction is complete. Next, they’ll read stories about trains and the jobs trains  provide before spending time dressed up and playing as a conductor or a passenger. Meanwhile, their teacher asks open-ended questions, such as, “Where would you like to travel to on this train?”

This is what a week of work might look like at a play-based preschool. Many metro Atlanta schools are embracing the idea of play-based learning to help children learn in a natural, fun way.

The Baby Brain

“The 2-year-old brain is developing so rapidly, and that continues to a significant effect up to 3-5 years,” said Tuba Rashid Khan, MD, MPH, Medical Director and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “A 2-year-old’s brain is 80% of the adult brain’s weight; by 5 years old, it’s 90%. Imagine how much is going on in that beautiful tiny brain.”

This means that early childhood years are crucial for making new connections. It’s estimated at least 1 million new neural connections are made every second. Neuroplasticity, the ability of neural networks in the brain to change, is at its highest in early ages, said Khan. “The early childhood  brain is like a sponge. They are absorbing everything in their environment, and subconsciously and consciously taking in verbal cues, what others are doing, and they’re organizing it in their brains.”

A Time to Play

Play creates learning opportunities with intellectual, social, emotional and physical development, as well as expressing imagination and creativity. Research has shown that play-based learning makes a difference. A study published in January 2022 for the Society for Research in Child Development reviewed 39 studies to find that guided play had a greater positive effect than direct instruction on early math skills, shape knowledge and task switching.

The study defined guided play as a middle-ground between free play and direct instruction, combining the motivation and exploration children have during playtime with extended learning guided by a teacher or caregiver.

“There are so many steps that go into playing: the intention of the type of game or activity I’m going to do, planning to execute it. I need cognitive flexibility, because I can’t predict how the other child is going to reciprocate, and then I have to react to that,” Khan said. “It’s adaptive learning, and it trains executive function skills, emotional skills regulation, teamwork, collaboration. When you’re an adult, this becomes more complex in a personal and professional setting. You’re building these skills which are key to living a life that is fruitful and thriving.”

Elena Jaime is the Lower School Director for The Children’s School, a Midtown school dedicated to play for ages 3 to grade 8. She is also the mother of a first grader and twins who are in the ages 4-5 classroom. “One thing that is really important for me as an educator is that play aligns with children and how they learn and experience the world,” she said. “They bring a natural curiosity to their experiences. They make sense of the world through play, how to problem solve, develop resilience and frustration tolerance. All of those skills that support human beings in their everyday lives, children begin to understand that through play.”

Beth Anderson is the Program Director at Little Sunshine’s Playhouse & Preschool, a Reggio Emilia school with a focus on a child’s work as play. Her own children have learned in both settings, as her 8-year-old went to a traditional school, and her 2-year-old is in a play-based environment. “Ages 0-5 are the magic years,” she said. “They should be full of fun and wonder. They are so special. Once they go into kindergarten and onward, it is pretty much strictly business.”

Jasmine Muhammad teaches the Bumblebees Class at Morningside Day Out Preschool, an independent school for 6 months to Pre-K. She’s been a teacher for six years, two of which have  been in a play-based environment. “Play-based is better in a sense of kids experience the world through playing. Sometimes, as adults, we forget that kids are kids,” she said. “With playing, we have their attention span longer.”

How Play-Based Learning Is Different

“If you’re looking at the two different types of classrooms, play-based looks more like controlled chaos,” Anderson said. “But you’ll hear more dialogue, more laughter. You’ll see more experiential hands-on learning and physical activity. Through the application, they can actually recognize what they’re learning and can grasp onto it. In a traditional setting, it’s more repetition of writing or teacher speaking.”

At The Children’s School, children are given materials and time for exploration and play. “How to develop a plan and execute it, those skills happen when we don’t structure everything for kids,” Jaime said. “We embed challenging academics through play and for our older kids. They’re motivated to learn, and they take risks when they experience joy.”

Jaime has taught at more traditional settings. “Children are asked to memorize facts or focus on the teacher at the front of the room as the person who owns the knowledge. That model is not aligned with how the world works now. Facts are things you can look up on your phone or computer. In all the ways in which the world has changed so much and so recently, education is understanding that a 21st century student needs to be a flexible thinker. You need to be able to ask the right questions, follow research and communicate with other people.”

“What I love about play-based learning is it’s endless. You can’t shut it off. It’s a little bit more creative,” said Anderson. “It tires them out, but it’s a good tired; they’re not still and stagnant.”

Muhammad appreciates the connection she has with her students. “It’s more of an emotional approach, so they have a bond with their teachers. You’re doing the activities with them, and you’re making a mess with them. In a traditional setting, you’re just showing them what do and you’re leading by example, but this puts you on their level, and so they’re not afraid to approach you.”

Anderson worked in a traditional setting for about 12 years, and she has been at Little Sunshine’s for three years. “I starkly notice, between traditional and play-based, there are less behavioral issues,” she said. “A 2- or 3-year-old doesn’t have the capacity for some of the things that happen in a traditional setting, and they get frustrated and have an emotional outburst.”

Learning About Learning

Khan has heard the misconception that because they’re just a child, they’re not going to understand or learn something. “When you’re climbing stairs, you can jump and skip to the third step, but it’s harder. It’s easier to reach when you step on the first step and then the second and then the third. If he child is missing key learning points, it will directly and indirectly affect their future development.”

Brain chemicals can be influenced and affected in the classroom, which Jaime has noticed. “When the brain is engaged, you have the ability to retain information,” she said. “When students are engaged and thinking about a meaningful experience, those experiences stick with learners.”

You can encourage your child’s learning at home by providing everyday activities that arouse your child’s curiosity, with materials for hands-on interaction and open-ended questions. “Even 15 minutes of active engagement where there’s reciprocity increases childhood development, increases IQ levels and reduces mental health disorders in later years,” Khan said. “While you’re waiting with your child for the bus to come, ask, ‘What do the shapes of clouds remind you of?’ There are so many areas where there are opportune moments to engage your child and improve relationships. Be aware that a few minutes can be an opportunity for learning and bonding with your child that shouldn’t be missed.”

You may have some heard pushback against this kind of approach to learning – school is for learning; kids can play at home. But children aren’t miniature adults, and research and experience  clearly show children benefit from a learning experience that caters to them and their needs in a playful manner.

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