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Learning to Learn: The Importance of Play

May 13, 2021 by Admin

by Julia Davis, Preschool Admissions Director

Recess and Rhetoric“What did you do at school today?” 

 “Play!” 

“Play what?” 

“Play on the playground, play with my friends, just play.” 

This is the conversation on a daily basis as I drive home from preschool with my two young sons, ages three and five. And if I dare to ask “But what did you learn?” I am met with… “<<silence>>.”  As a parent, these responses lead me to think, “What are they actually teaching in the Preschool?” 

To answer this question, I turned to our interim Preschool director, Mrs. Tracy Larson, who has nurtured and guided young minds for more than 25 years. Even now, she teaches alongside a former student, Miss Olivia Avery, whom she taught as a preschooler years ago!  

Mrs. Larson makes no apologies for the play-based environment to which my children joyfully return day after day. She shared with me that our preschool has always valued play as the best mode for children to learn about the world and those around them. While Providence Preschool introduces academic concepts, at developmentally appropriate levels, she is far more concerned with children becoming creative thinkers, thoughtful communicators, and good friends to others—much of which is accomplished through PLAY!

What the research says about play

To support her pro-play-position, Mrs. Larson shared a strong collection of research, including an out-of-print piece titled “The Power of Play” by Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. Through his research with the Harvard Preschool Project, Dr. Meyerhoff shares that while parents may feel pressure to put their young children in rigorous academic programs, the benefits of a play-based environment far outweigh what young children may gain from a program weighted with heavy academics.

“Young children who are permitted to develop fundamental concepts and capacities through developmentally appropriate play will be considerably better off in the long run than those whose learning experiences have been limited to rigorous instruction in specific academic areas,” he writes. Meyerhoff’s research shows that the best environment for children to learn through guided play is one that provides “freedom, flexibility, fascination, and fun.” 

Teachers are scaffolders 

Providence Preschool teachers consider themselves as “scaffolders,” a term used to illustrate the connections that teachers guide children to build by providing materials, introducing vocabulary, and asking leading questions, in order to reach a learning goal. Teachers facilitate the play rather than offering direct instruction. This is called guided play.

“Guided play allows teachers to piggyback on children’s joy and engagement to reinforce important skills,” writes a researcher with the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Through guided play, children develop confidence, independence, teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, imagination, dexterity, and more. The cognitive, physical, and social/emotional benefits of this play-based model far exceed what a young child might glean from more traditional academic methods such as rote memorization, reviewing flashcards, or direct instruction.

What does guided play look like? 

Teachers (aka “scaffolders”) provide a developmentally appropriate level of structure to help guide the formation of strong foundations for learning. A recent visit to the preschool playground demonstrated just that.

Where some may see a rubber-paved car track and plastic riding cars, preschool teachers see a playful-learning opportunity brimming with possibility. But that will look different from our two-year-olds classes to our five-year-old children. The two- and three-year-olds practice going around the track in the same direction and using effective language with friends as they navigate. Three- and four-year-olds practice passing slower vehicles, waiting for obstacles to clear, and giving rides to “stranded travelers.” The older children take orders and serve up “ice cream and hamburgers” at the drive-thru window, exchanging “currency,” while they employ the previously learned rules of the road.

Establishing habits of the mind

The fruits of these connections are emphasized in Providence’s own 16 “Habits of the Mind” that we seek to see in our graduates: Critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, curiosity, resilience, friendship, compassion, and wise decision-making are all valuable life skills, the foundations of which are tenderly and thoughtfully established as young as the preschool years through play.

I have to say, as a parent, it was such a relief to hear this message about the importance of play from the fearless leader of our precious preschool program! Increasing societal pressure for kids to achieve more, sooner and earlier than ever before, can put parents in a stressful position about what’s best for the child. Especially this year, I am so thankful for these engaging, play-based learning experiences, as educators worldwide are concerned with the lack of in-person interactions in young children and the potentially long-lasting effects after COVID (see The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2021).

Now, with strengthened understanding, I am refreshingly aware that my children develop best in an environment in which they are lovingly invited to do what they are so naturally designed to do: play! Furthermore, rather than focusing on traditional academic outcomes, we as parents can engage with our children in playful learning to strengthen our bonds and support our little ones along their natural path of maturational development. 

So, the next time my children jump in the car, happily reporting they played all day at school, I can respond with exuberance and excitement for the enduring power of play.


Julia Davis has been preschool admission director at Providence School since 2015. She enjoys working with a staff of nurturing and dedicated teachers and appreciates the solid program and curriculum. Julia and her husband have two young sons who attend Providence Preschool and an infant daughter. As an administrator and a parent, Julia appreciates that she can speak honestly with other parents about the love and support her child experiences every day.

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