Is there any science behind play-based preschools?
May 10, 2019 2:29 AM   Subscribe

My daugher is in preschool. She seems to play a lot but there is not a lot of "free play" and the free play is divided into stations. She loves it there and wants to play school every day when she gets home. However, I wonder if a more play-based school would be better. Is there any evidence that a play-based, non-academic preschool will make her a more well-rounded kid in the future? Thank you!
posted by chaiminda to Education (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning, according to that one article at least.

Research, by its nature, tends to look at populations. There might be evidence to show that - across a population - this or that kind of education or diet or healthcare or social structure or whatever is most effective in achieving a given outcome, on average. But you only have to make decisions for your own family, so go with your gut. Maybe your gut leads you in the same direction as the research, or maybe it doesn't.

Your daughter loves her preschool, and evidently has committed & engaged parent(s) who are dedicated to her wellbeing, so her chances of being well-rounded are already looking pretty good imho. Don't fix it if it's not broken.
posted by rd45 at 4:05 AM on May 10 [14 favorites]

What is she doing besides free play? Organized games, or pre-academic worksheets, or walks and other activities?

I don't know about their other activities, but having certain stations open during free play is a very common way of managing what you need to clean up, keeping the kids in certain parts of the room so adults can monitor them all, and managing burnout with all the toys (if not everything is always available, it's interesting when the stations change up). This is common enough that most places will probably do something like that.

A structured day is good for little kids (I mean, the kind of structure you have at home--here is when we do this activity, here is when we do that one), so to me, it depends on what they're doing with the non-play time.

In answer to your question, I don't know of any research like what you're looking for, but I have read in many parenting books about the importance of structured schedules for preschoolers.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:15 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

You might want to look up Loose Parts play, or the Reggio approach. There is a growing body of knowledge on the benefits of loose parts play (providing kids with access to random non-toy items, and letting them do what they want with them) - I assume this is in line with what you mean by free play.
posted by scrute at 4:22 AM on May 10

Fully agree with rd45.

She loves it there and wants to play school every day when she gets home.

In your shoes, that's all I'd need to know.

As you are undoubtedly going to find out as you get further into the project of parenting this child, a great fit with any kind of education-oriented environment is a wondrous and beautiful thing.

The essence of good play is play the child is actively participating in and wants to concentrate on and keep on doing. It sounds like not only does she have that where she is, but wants to extend it when she gets home; she'll do fine.
posted by flabdablet at 7:18 AM on May 10 [7 favorites]

Preschool teacher here...

I'll admit, I haven't looked extensively into the research. How ever, as scrute mentioned above, it is helpful to know how the rest of the day looks.

(This is an example of what I did in the past, I only work part time now, so things are a bit different for me. In addition, this is with 5 year olds who are getting ready for kindergarten.)

We start the morning with circle time. This involves a greeting and some time for the kids to talk about things they're interested. At the point, I did a brain break. Something like freeze dance/musical statues (following directions and paying attention) doing the Hokey Pokey (left and rights as well as body parts), gross motor activities, etc. We moved onto doing the calendar (day, month, year, season) and the weather (including putting a sticker on a chart to graph the weather).

Then we would do a short brain break to get ready for the "curriculum" part of the day. We would always have a story related to a topic (we use "Creative Curriculum" if you're interested). There were additional activities realated to social/emotional topics, math and letter concepts and random other things like a "Question of the Day".

I know it seems like a lot, but in reality it took about 90 minutes and the activities were varied and fun. Also, the bits of down time.

At this point we did free play. At my center, we have various "areas" (sometimes called centers). They include things like blocks and tools. We have a house keeping area with dress up clothes, old clean food containers, art, library and various small building type toys like Lego and Lincoln Logs. We clean-up as we go (at least that's the idea we're trying to teach).

Now, lunch time and nap time followed by snack.

In the afternoon after snack, we try to take the kids outside for about 30-45 minutes (depending on weather, of course).

Once we go back to the classroom, we do a small project. It's sometimes related to our curriculum theme (we're doing buildings now and we made a city by coloring and decorating envelopes and putting them on a big piece of paper where we drew roads, etc.) Sometimes it's related to a book (currently, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar). Sometimes to the season or current holiday, etc. I try to do a "Science Friday" where we do various STEM type projects (currently on for next week is a project about building sturdy building that can withstand the "Big Bad Wolf" (one of our current curriculum books).

After that free play in areas and clean-up.

At this point, it's about 5-5:15 and parents are really arriving for pick-up. We finishing picking up the room and move to "table toys". Those are those small building toys, coloring, basically anything that can be done at a table. And then at 6, any remaining kids go up front to wait for pick-up with the school agers.

I do send home kindergarten prep packets twice a week. They include writing practice (including numbers, letters and their name), sight words (4 a week. Weeks 1 and 3, and weeks 2 and 4 are identical, so 8 words a month. Words that are on a preschool sight words list.) Phonics and reading (usually little emergent readers to color and read with mom/dad/whoever). And mathematic concepts like position words and shapes. This way it can be done at home and not at school, giving us more time for projects/play/reading/etc.

I'm only there in the afternoons now, so I put together the STEM stuff, the projects and supervise indoor/outdoor/table play.

I hope this helps. I know it sounds like a lot, but each activity is time limited and varied in order throughout the week (except circle time). There are frequent breaks because we know that preschools are short attention spans. As the year progresses, I gradually increase the time spent on focused activities to get them ready for a more school-like atmosphere.

All my kids love coming to school. They get to play, get ready for school, do hands-on things, have crafts and projects to take home and work on social skills.

I hope this helps. I've only been teaching preschool for a year, and I'm still learning as I go along. I'm pretty sure I'm going to get put in with the 3 year olds soon, so I'll be dramatically altering things as I go to add a lot more free play in the afternoon when I'm there.
posted by kathrynm at 8:21 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

I may be misunderstanding your question; you say you wonder if a play based school would be better, but it sounds like she is already in a play based preschool, not an "academic" one.

Academic: structured instruction (lessons) in reading, writing, and math.
Play-based: children learn while at play

Play based learning has been shown to be more developmentally appropriate for preschool aged children. IMO, play based is better at this age. However, there are different kinds of play-based learning:
Free play is typically described as play that is child-directed, voluntary, internally motivated, and pleasurable. One type of free play frequently endorsed is sociodramatic play, where groups of children practice imaginative role-playing through creating and following social rules such as pretending to be different family members. On the other hand, the term guided play refers to play activities with some level of adult involvement to embed or extend additional learning opportunities within the play itself. A range of terminology has been used to refer to types of guided play activities (e.g., centre-based learning, purposefully framed play); however, one distinction that can be made is who has control over the play activity: Some activities are described as teacher-directed, such as intentionally planned games, while others are described as mutually directed, where teachers get involved without taking over or transforming the activity so that both teachers and students exercise some control over the play. One example of teacher-directed play is the modification of a children’s board game to include actions that practice numerical thinking and spatial skills, while one example of mutually-directed play is a teacher observing students acting out a popular movie and suggesting that the class make their own movie, which leads to creating and writing a script, researching relevant topics, and practicing different roles in a collaborative manner. This distinction between free play, mutually directed play, and teacher-directed play is useful for examining the growing body of literature on different types of play-based learning.
So the kids could still be having a lot of time for free play--because they control the play activity--in the stations. Even though they're being provided the tools, they decide how to play with them.

Now if you've observed the teacher tries to control how the children play, no matter what they're doing, that could be a problem. But it doesn't sound like that's the case.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:00 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Grandma here, I say let her play the way she wants. In Finland, the schools thought the little ones were not progressing as well as expected, so they increased recess and craft time. Everything improved. Let her play. Maybe she will revolutionize education when she grows up; maybe she'll be a plumber. You are already doing the right thing, relax and enjoy her enjoyment.
posted by Enid Lareg at 4:54 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

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