Show of hands: who thinks the process of choosing a preschool for your child is ridiculously stressful?

The pressure to provide the best education for your kids seems like it’s starting earlier and earlier. Parents are challenged to pick the preschool that will guarantee their kids lifelong academic and professional success: a tall order if ever there was one.

(That’s not even taking into account the stress of finding a preschool that is affordable, doesn’t have a mile long wait list and is compatible with the parent’s work schedule.)

Play focused preschools are slowly gaining attention as an option that, if not strictly able to guarantee success, boasts significant benefits for kids. But before you jump to answering the titular question, let’s take a quick look at what these schools are and what they offer.

What Are Play Focused Preschools?

Play focused, play based or child centered preschools all tend to value unstructured (or minimally structured) play time over traditional academic instruction.

That makes sense, wouldn’t you say? You can’t expect a four-year-old to sit still and focus on instruction for long periods of time. You can’t hold them to the same expectations you would a high schooler.

Of course, there isn’t a rigid standard for what a play focused preschool looks like. Some may still include traditional instructional times (developmentally appropriate in content and time, of course). Others may simply include a variety of stations from sensory water or sand stations to building blocks, a dress up chest to play kitchen, a reading area to a play store. Still others may prioritize time spent outside in nature or on the playground.

What they all have in common is a dedication to and respect for play time.

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Why Focus On Play?

Play isn’t just important because kids enjoy it, although that is a perk. Play is important because it has been proven, time and again, to be vital to learning and development.

The increase in ADHD diagnoses, while attributable to multiple factors, helps highlight the value of play: movement and activity are crucial for proper sensory development. Sensory development through movement is, in turn, what helps kids “turn their brain on” for times of instruction.

Play is critical to brain development, specifically the prefrontal cortex. “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain… [those changes] help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems.” These are skills that will serve children throughout their entire lives—academically, socially, personally, professionally—not just during preschool.

What Are the Benefits of Play?

If you had to answer that question, right now, there are probably a few simple answers that would jump to mind. You might point out that active play is beneficial to physical fitness and development. You may recall the previous section and note its positive impact on brain development.

But what are the specific, proven benefits of play?

Research on the subject presents a long list of benefits, including:

  • Complex language skills
  • More developed social skills
  • Greater empathy
  • Higher levels of creativity
  • Better-developed interpersonal skills
  • Less aggression
  • More complex thinking skills

Play also equips and encourages children to take an active role in their own lifelong education by providing safe and fun-filled opportunities to “soak up knowledge about [themselves], about others, about life, and about how stuff works.” They get the chance to explore what interests them, experiment until they figure out how and why things work, develop perseverance through self-initiated quests to master new tricks or toys and gain valuable collaborative and cooperative social skills.

A Note on False Dichotomies

Although there are clear benefits to play focused preschool, it’s important to questions whether or not we’re encouraging a false dichotomy. Does preschool have to be either play focused or direct instruction? Isn’t there a value to both?

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) advocates against an either/or view of education. As they put it: “we want children to be both knowledgeable about facts and details and be creative and good problem solvers.” Such a goal requires a complex balance between play and instruction.

So, now that you have more knowledge and research under your belt, what do you think? Would you send your kids to a play focused preschool?

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