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Information provided by Dr. Terry Fonda Smith, Head of Lower School, to US News & World Report

Why is play a vital part of learning?
At The Harley School, play is an essential component of learning. In our Lower School, play’s role in development is crucial. To loosely quote Maria Montessori, play is not the opposite of work—it IS the work of children. As children explore their world through play, they make meaning, forging neural pathways and healthy attitudes that will become the foundation for all future learning. Children take risks, engage in trial and error, mimic what they see in their world, and explore with their senses. These are all aspects of play which we should preserve even as we get older!

While there is no one definition of play, there are a number of characteristics that make it so vital, including: creativity, enjoyment, “What if?” (symbolism), hands-on discovery, and intrinsic motivation.

All meaningful and lasting learning comes through play—a child’s natural way to approach the world. It’s joyful and satisfying!

How does learning through play work in pre-k?
Children learn from each other as much as they learn from adult educators. The responsibility of teachers is to create a saturated learning environment full of provocations and opportunities to explore and engage with materials, as well as engaging in collaborative play with peers. Not only are young children learning about what is in the classroom setting—nature, art materials, make-believe, music, puzzles, and more—but they are learning and experimenting socially with their peers. They are building their toolkits for how to make sense out of the world and to expand their capacity for understanding big concepts and authentic learning experiences. It is the best laboratory!

How do kids learn through play in kindergarten and early grades?
Play allows children to develop and try out all types of motor skills while assisting with the development of social competence. Through play, children “work” on relationship building, learn to resolve conflicts, and regulate behaviors. They develop greater sophistication in language and how to use it effectively to relate, negotiate, and empathize with their peers. One of the most important parts of this stage of growing up is acting as their own agent and making their own choices. This leads to feelings of both optimism and success. Playing with concepts and skills first through exploration allows students to create and construct their understandings, then they can use those skills and materials in more directed ways to advance their learning. Imagine if you wanted a child to learn to play the piano, yet you didn’t give them sufficient time to explore and discover what the instrument was able to do and just directed them to read notes and play what was prescribed. That child would certainly lose the joy and wonder of that opportunity rather quickly. Children bring natural curiosity and delight to learning. Keeping learning playful is essential in order to maintain those attitudes.

What can parents do to facilitate play-based learning?
One of the best things parents can do to facilitate play-based learning is to ask questions. “I wonder…” statements encourage children to think in different ways about what they encounter. Give them access to as much as you can, inside and outside, and allow them to take risks. Obviously we don’t want to encourage dangerous situations, but increasing the risk and minimizing the hazards is a great way to let children explore at their level of comfort (which is often greater than parents’ comfort!).

Let children explore and create to their satisfaction. Then start by giving them games with rules or parameters to see how they respond. Play happens everywhere and at all times—not just when there is nothing else to do or when you are waiting for dinner. Play should involve the brain as much as the body—physical and mental at the same time. If you play with your children, take turns directing how it goes. Don’t always let your children call the shots. They need to learn that they can take someone else’s ideas and learn how to lose gracefully. The more you approach life playfully, the more your children will follow your lead.