The Value of Play in Early Childhood Education

  (Updated January 18, 2022)
Erica Fenner-McAdoo
Erica Fenner-McAdoo
Elementary school principal; M.A. in School Administration
Two young girls building a block tower in a classroom.

Everything I need to know about life I learned in pre-kindergarten: how to correctly hold my pencil and form letters and numbers, recognizing letters and their sounds, to engage in projects, and how I fit in the world. I was taught how to share with others, use my manners, wait my turn, and use proper table etiquette. I learned how to use my words when I got upset, tell the truth, and say sorry for my wrongdoings.

Early childhood settings provide an essential foundation for our youngest learners.

How has Early Childhood Education Been Impacted Since the Start of COVID?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about fear and uncertainty for many parents nationwide.  Schools and childcare facilities shut down for months at the start of the pandemic. Although some children were given the opportunity to meet online with their teacher, many parents did not see the value in virtual instruction for their three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

When centers and schools began to reopen, the damage for our children who missed their original learning opportunity had already been done. They had missed out on the importance of play in early childhood education for a period of time. This changed the trajectory of their future education; those fundamentals that can only be authentically learned in person hadn’t been experienced.

Research shows that enrollment in programs declined drastically (see infographic below). There were several reasons for this decline. Some parents who were teleworking at home decided to keep their children with them. Many parents were uncertain about sending their younger children back into a public setting for fear of contracting the virus. Some could not find childcare as many centers were short-staffed and had to lower the class sizes to meet student-to-teacher ratio requirements.

Students who would have been identified and given IEP services missed their chance to be serviced which is disheartening. Programs also lost funding due to low enrollment. A study was done named Historical Crisis, Historical Opportunity (June 2021) that highlighted the decline across the nation in early education setting enrollments.

With all of these issues, there are still significant areas where children encounter these impacts.  Let us examine these in detail.

The Value of Play

The value of early childhood education learning through play for two- to five-year-old children is critical in developing social-emotional, fine and gross motor skills and academic growth. Have you ever visited a fully functional pre-k classroom? It is colorful but not overwhelming and equipped with all the paper, paint, and crayons a kid could imagine.

The walls are adorned with the original creations of the children as their work is valued and celebrated. There are centers with real-life toys for children to explore, and you’ll often find a housekeeping center, dramatic play, sensory table, literacy and writing, library, blocks, art, math, and science. Children engage in these stations through play, all while learning skills that will aid them to having a solid foundation before starting kindergarten.

When students were made to learn virtually or missed the entire learning opportunity, they lost this rich experience that cannot fully be replaced at home. Play is learned, structured, and intentionally planned in lessons by the teachers. Students learn values and rules through play because it teaches empathy, emotional intelligence, and how to be a productive team member.

Developing Secure Attachments Through Play

Children need to feel connected to their parents and childcare providers. This relationship is more natural with parents, but childcare providers must create secure attachments with children to foster these relationships. This is done through the use of meaningful play and activities.

Children send cues to us about their needs; we must attend to those needs appropriately to bring about positive attachments. We must also recognize that each child is unique in their own right, and what works for one may not work for the other. Children sense love, care, and concern from their caretakers.

Management of behavior and teaching fundamental skills through play is also very vital. Unfortunately, when children are absent from the classroom setting, this type of relationship cannot be fostered.

Development of Learning Skills

The pandemic interrupted much but many argue that children still forged through and learned.  While I agree that children did learn and grow; the matter at hand is if students gained a year’s worth of growth as they would in a typical year.

Most students have learning gaps that may not be able to be filled in just one year’s time because mastering skills takes consistency and time. Keeping a close watch on a student’s progress must occur, and the teacher must intervene with re-teaching or interventions when necessary.

Luckily, children are resilient; with teachers who have a firm grasp of the content and understand best practices (such as MTSS, scaffolding, interventions, progress monitoring, etc.), over time our students will still be successful and reach grade-level proficiency.

Learning to Regulate Behavior

Behavior management was utterly different with virtual learning. Educators had to learn how to manage a virtual classroom with strategies they had never before used or known of. These consisted of virtual classroom engagement, mute button etiquette, managing the chatbox, virtual small groups, all while learning the technology and programs to share their screens for videos and interactive lessons. Our three- to five-year-old students missed the opportunity to learn the foundation of face-to-face behavior management.

These students would have learned to regulate their behavior in an ordinary year through play. Students are taught social stories and given examples of what to do when they disagree or hurt a friend’s feelings. This “on-the-job” training occurs while in learning centers. The children are encouraged to play while teachers monitor and assist in the real-life application of behavior regulation when students encounter conflict.

Speech and Language Development Through Play

Whether solitary play, parallel play, or cooperative play, language development occurs and is crucial to a child’s speech and language growth. Children begin to feel comfortable and gain confidence in speaking, improve their vocabulary, and grasp the proper pronunciation of words.  By the age of two, most children have a wide vocabulary and can put their thoughts into words. Play reinforces vocabulary, sounds, confidence, communication, and social skills, which are indispensable.

These skills are covert in adulthood to having a solid understanding of responsibility, literacy, working in teams, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and being a respectful citizen in society.

Have a passion for early childhood education? Explore our available early childhood education graduate programs and get started today!

*Updated January 2022
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