Purposeful Play: Connecting Play and Learning in Preschool

By Molly Breen

Purposeful Play: Connecting Play and Learning in Preschool“Play is serious learning,” quipped Fred Rogers famously. Vivian Gussin Paley devoted a lifetime of teaching and writing to the power of play, describing play as the work of childhood in recognition of its central role in child development. Dozens of other early childhood thought leaders have researched and written about the power of play in early development, backed by neurological evidence of its positive impacts.

And yet, when we think about play, what kind of a mental image does it conjure? For the average person, and even parent, we may see children with faces beaming, engaged in lighthearted and open-ended imaginative activity. We may think about fantasies and creative projects that are meant for the very young—a delightful vision.

For those of us in the early education game, we might imagine a very different variety of expressions and emotions, and a whole range of activities. When Mr. Rogers spoke of play as “serious” and Paley wrote about it as “work,” they were swinging a spotlight on some very important truths about the role of play in child development:

  1. Development occurs through direct experience and playful abstraction of “real life.”
  2. Development occurs as a result of interacting with others and playfully exploring social norms.

The truth is that play is both joyful and serious; it is both work and, well, play.

As educators, we may be looking for the purpose in play—evidence to connect standards to the lived experience. We may ask ourselves: What lessons are embedded in these play scenarios, and how can I document growth and connect this play to learning and development?

In my setting, two common themes for social and emotional development explored during play are rejection/acceptance and conflict resolution. Really, these are just two examples of the many nuanced social and emotional lessons that emerge from play!

“Can I play too?” asks one preschooler of the group of three, busy in the play kitchen setting up a fresh exploration of Family. The group pauses, looks around at the current cast of characters, and one child speaks up for the group, “No. We already have our family.”

Does this scenario sound familiar? How about the other common exclusionary tactic: “No! Only girls/boys can play this.” Heartbreak! Rejection! Despair! Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but these kinds of scenarios come up frequently in preschool and often require some teacher guidance.

When children are rejecting someone from the group, it is generally because they, too, have been excluded and they want to understand the other side of the power dynamic. And while we value Paley’s adage that “you can’t say you can’t play at school,” sometimes it is true that there is a mode of play going on that deserves some reverence and may not accommodate an interruption or a new character. Although the initial rejection may be a bit painful, it also presents an opportunity for growth. With teacher guidance, the rejected child can identify their disappointment about the exclusion and learn ways to cope or find a suitable solution. This will ultimately lead to a sense of resilience and self-sufficiency. For example, in our setting we encourage children to first ask, “What are you playing?” instead of “Can I play?” By removing the power of potential rejection from the question, the opportunity for exclusion is reduced.

Next, we are all about empowering children to build awareness of their own inner voice. We do this with a simple mantra: Who knows best about you? or YOU know best about YOU. This empowers the disempowered or rejected child by helping them remember, despite the rejection, that they are the captains of their own destiny when it comes to play and that they can make their own fun.

Sometimes coming up with a solution within the play scenario doesn’t require a teacher’s guidance or intervention. I’ve witnessed elegant problem-solving and compromise from a distance. (I encourage you to wait out guiding a solution, if possible, rather than immediately instructing the group toward an outcome. Or simply try wondering aloud: “I wonder what we could do?”) Excited proclamations of solution burst forth from the group: “You can be our dog!” or “We need someone to deliver the packages!” Suddenly there is a new character, the play has become more intricate, and the wound of rejection has been healed.

There is no better context to experience these emotions than in the serious work of play! It is precisely because play is open-ended, imaginative, and fantasy filled that there is flexibility and even joy in encountering emotional pain or other positive social challenges and then shifting right back into the creative work. Look closely at children’s beaming faces, listen carefully to their fantastic imaginative narratives, and lean into the purpose of play.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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