Using Play to Boost Academic Skills

The case for play in early childhood gets stronger and stronger every day. The more we learn about how children grow and develop, the more we see that children need to play to flourish- socially, emotionally AND academically.

A recent article in Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Let Preschoolers Play! says:

a growing body of research supports the very real benefits of exploratory and playful learning experiences. A 2007 study published in Science evaluated a play-based program, Tools of the Mind, against a non-play-based one. After two years in the play-oriented classrooms, children scored better on self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The self-control kids learn through interacting and playing with others has an academic payoff, too; it’s more strongly correlated with future academic success than either IQ or early reading and math skills.

The article goes on to explain that one of the problems with teaching preschoolers in the way elementary school students are traditionally taught is that learning through trial and error is eliminated. Instead children are “fast tracked” by adults to learn basic skills. The result is limited problem solving skills and diminished creativity. The fact that these are essential skills for our children to be competitive in the business world of the 21st century should have parents and the larger community very worried!

It’s an easy fix. Let young children learn through play and hands-on experimenting!

What to Look for in a Child Care Environment

Quality child care can come in many forms, from large child care centers to small in-home child care programs and everything in between. Finding the right situation for your child can be overwhelming and stressful. It is a personal decision. What is right for your family may not be right for your best friends family. Here are some things to consider as you explore your options:

  • Schedule– if your work schedule is outside of the traditional 9-5 Monday-Friday work schedule it is important that you ask about the hours of operation of any program you are considering. Many programs may be eliminated from your list of options based on schedule.
  • Location– if you are like many people, this is a drive you will have to make on a daily basis. Once enrolled in child care, many people find that the majority of the time they have with their child is just before bed and rushing to get out the door in the morning. If the commute to child care is long, it is using up time you could be spending interacting with your child at home. Also, if your commute takes you through heavy traffic areas or other stressful situations, this will have a negative impact on your entire day (and possibly your child’s day too!).
  • Cleanliness and safety– children are notoriously good at spreading germs and young children are always putting things in their mouths. Avoid child care programs that look unclean, where choking hazards are within easy reach of young children or where you are at all uncomfortable with supervision or safety.
  • Learning environment– Children learn by doing. This means engaging in hands-on play. Look for a program where children are playing with open-ended toys like blocks, housekeeping props and dress up, rubber animals, dolls, balls, cars, etc. Watch the way children interact with each other and how the caregivers interact with the children. They should be attentive, but not controlling. Children should be active, but not wild. Children should have choices of what to play with, when and how. Adults should guide children in their choices when necessary. Avoid programs that rely heavily television, computers and worksheets to keep children busy. The kids may look calm and busy, but they are missing out on important opportunities to explore concepts in meaningful ways that will make a lasting impact on their future growth.
  • Discipline– Just as there is a lot of variety in how families approach discipline, the same is true for child care programs. When it comes to discipline, consistency is important for children so choose a program with a discipline philosophy that is in line with yours.
  • Food– some programs provide food, others expect you to bring it. Be aware of what foods will be served to your child. Excessive amounts of juice and other high-sugar foods should be avoided.
  • Outdoor time– all children, even infants, need time outdoors. Ask how often children are taken outdoors and in what situations (weather, staffing, etc.) children might not be taken outdoors.
  • Teacher training/accreditation– are teachers certified? Is the program accredited by a national or state agency? Do the teachers take part in ongoing training or professional development? A program that has high standards and supports teacher’s professional development is more likely to retain staff and be more aware of current best practice for caring for young children. This is good for kids.
  • Communication– how do teachers let you know what went on during the day? How are problems communicated? How do the teachers communicate with the children?
  • Flexibility– if you are likely to need to change your schedule, add, drop or switch days, ask if this is a possibility. Some programs are very flexible and others are not at all.

Choosing the right child care situation is important for your own peace of mind and for your child’s well-being. Take your time, ask questions and make the choice that is right for you.

Slow Down Parents! Be Present for Your Children

One thing I see that really upsets me every time I visit an early childhood center is parents on cell phones when they pick up their children. This happens at every center I’ve ever been to. It doesn’t matter how old a child is, or how communicative. Every child deserves to have the full attention of their parent or other primary caregiver, especially after spending a long day apart.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children has a resource series called “Message in a Backpack”. These are great little fliers that help early childhood educators communicate important issues to families. Here is a link to a Message in a Backpack titled, “Listen, Talk, Answer- Support Your Child’s Learning”. This one page handout encourages parents to slow down and really talk with their children, and while it doesn’t specifically address my pet-peeve of cell phones at pick up (and drop off), it does give families some concrete strategies to begin a conversation.

Tackling the Transition Time Challenge

Whether you are working with toddlers, preschoolers or young elementary school children, the most challenging parts of the day tend to be those moments when everyone must stop what they are doing and transition to starting the next activity. A recent article in Child Care Information Exchange, “Eliminating Transitions“, tackles this issue head-on and asks, why do we have so many moments of transition anyway?

How are transition times working in your classroom? Change causes stress, especially if children are really involved in play or some other project. Chances are it is during transition times when most behavior issues arise. We choose to be early childhood educators because we love to nurture and support children, but during transition times, we often become more like drill sergeants! Even for teachers transition times are stressful.

Here are some of the questions the authors encourage teachers to explore as you evaluate their own schedule:

  • How often do children go through transition times? Count the number of transitions that occur throughout the day. Aim for 6 or fewer for half-day programs and 8 or fewer for full-day. How many of these transitions involve the entire group?
  • Time each transition from beginning to end. What percentage of your day is actually spent in transition?
  • Are some transitions more difficult than others?
  • What are the children doing during each transition time? Note instances of challenging behaviors. Notice if many children are spending a lot of time waiting for others. What are they doing while they wait?
  • What are the adults doing during the transitions?

Once you’ve gathered this information, really think about how your schedule is working for you and your children. Can you redesign some transitions to involve small groups of children at staggered intervals? Can you eliminate some transitions all together?

The article goes on to describe the many benefits of lengthening blocks of play time and reducing the number of transitions children experience each day, including:

  • more opportunities for teachers to interact with children
  • more opportunities for children to interact with one another and develop social skills
  • more elaborate play and increased levels of problem-solving by children as they get more involved in dramatic play or self-created projects
  • less stress on teachers and children
  • more opportunities for meaningful observation by teachers

In short, reducing the number of transition times can create a better learning environment.

Tips for Successful Mixed-Age Groups

Whether spending time at home with siblings, in a family child care setting, or in an early childhood program where lower enrollment allows for mixed age groupings, summer often provides a unique opportunity for kids of different ages to play and spend time together.

This can be a great experience. Younger children watch and learn from older children. They are motivated to try new and challenging things as they imitate the activities they see. Older children have the opportunity to develop nurturing relationships and develop the positive self-esteem that comes with being a role model for others. Everyone benefits.

But along with these benefits come challenges. Differences in developmental stages and abilities can cause conflicts and misunderstandings. Scheduling issues can arise when infants or younger children need to be fed or nap while older children want attention. Taking the time to promote positive relationships among the children in your care will create an environment of cooperation that is well worth the effort.

Here are a few tips for promoting positive relationships between children of different ages:

  • Praise children for being helpful or kind to one another.
  • Be understanding of a child’s developmental stage.
  • Avoid punishing toddlers or older children for disturbing younger children. Instead make it a teachable moment. Explain the possible consequences of their actions and redirect the behavior.
  • Involve older children in the care of younger children.
  • Take pictures of children engaged in cooperative play, then talk about how wonderful the experience was as you look at the pictures later.
  • Give all children the opportunity to take on a chore or task to develop a sense of importance. Even toddlers can water a plant or put napkins on the table.

For great activity ideas complete with tips for modifying activities for different ages and abilities, check out World of Wonder’s Mini Kits. Exploring Water is especially great for summer fun!

Tips for Creating a Great Family Child Care Space

Family child care homes can be an amazing place for young children. Many center-based child care programs try and fall short of trying to provide that cozy, home-like feel that helps to put children and families at ease.

For family child care providers, that home-like feel comes with the space. The challenge becomes making your home a space that works for you and your family, as well as for the children in your care.

Here are some tips for making your space the best that it can be.

  • Have clear barriers (doors, child safety gates) that separate your private family space from the areas used by the children in your care.
  • Use low shelves, sofas and other existing furniture to create room dividers, cozy nooks and control the way people move through your space.
  • Have a areas where children can enjoy quiet activities as well as a space where children can explore movement and more active play.
  • Have areas where children can be comfortably alone (but supervised!) and in groups.
  • Get creative with your furniture and storage. Can nap items be stored in a nearby linen closet or under the sofa? Can a craft cart slide under a side table in your dining room or kitchen when not in use? Can a crib mattress that you are not using help to create a cozy reading corner or tumbling area?
  • Use your entrance to promote parent communication. Post a bulletin board with your daily schedule, yearly calendar or other current notices for parents.
  • Make a payment drop box from an old tissue box or other container and place it near the entrance to encourage prompt payments.

For even more information on setting up your home environment as well as how to plan a routine and all kinds of activity ideas, take a look at our Family Child Care Smart Start Kit or Activity Binder. If you work with mostly infants and toddlers, try our Family Child Care Infant/Toddler materials.

For a great article on how to plan your family child care space, check out Designing a Family Child Care Environment in  Child Care Information Exchange.

Keep Families Informed with a Newsletter

If your school or program doesn’t regularly send home a newsletter you could be missing out on a great opportunity. Newsletters are a great tool to:

  • Promote family involvement-We all know that family engagement has a big impact on a child’s success in school, but getting families involved isn’t as easy as it seems it should be! Your newsletter can inform families of upcoming opportunities to get involved and give tips on how to continue the learning at home.
  • Communicate your program’s value– “I wish our parents understood the value of play” is a comment I hear often. A newsletter is a great way let parents know about your organization’s mission, vision and values. Include a paragraph in each issue about some of the great play-based learning opportunities or other benefits/services you provide.
  • Solicit help to accomplish program goals– Need more musical instruments? Looking for someone to help with some maintenance issues? Post your program’s needs or a “wish list” in a newsletter and you may be surprised at the responses you get. A program that is supported by the greater community is much more likely to be successful, and if you’re a non-profit, these community contributions can help to secure future funding opportunities!
  • Take care of business– Every program has logistical issues and business to take care of. What is your snow-day or pick-up and drop-off policy? Who’s day is it to bring snack? Are you closed for the upcoming holiday? Including policy and other reminders in a newsletter can help your business to run more smoothly.
  • Grow your program– When parents have confidence in the care their children receive, they are more likely to spread the word and encourage other families to enroll. A good newsletter shows you are organized and clearly communicates your program’s value, making parents feel good about their decision to place their child in your care.

A quick online search will lead you to all kinds of resources and templates for writing newsletters. Give it a try! Once you’ve decided what to include and have it all laid out, making monthly changes is a breeze, and well worth the small effort!

WoW Kits help you communicate your curriculum to families with our letters home (included in all of our toddler themes) and the unit overview pages you’ll find in each preschool Terrific Topic!