What is the best way for parents to help prepare young children for school? Play with them!
Play is the education of young children. The social/emotional benefits of play are obvious, but play also has an academic benefit. In fact, a position statement jointly published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 2002 advocates play as an opportunity for children to learn mathematical concepts.
Balancing and Ordering Blocks Builds Mathematical Reasoning
Playing with blocks helps children learn three-dimensional reasoning that becomes the foundation for later learning geometry, physics, architecture, and engineering. When children sort blocks by shape, they practice making comparisons. Working together with other children or adults to create a structure lets children practice following directions and helps them understand the translation of ideas into words and actions. Balancing blocks in a tower – and then knocking them down – gives children practice with cause and effect.
Drawing, scribbling, doodling, and creating helps children learn to note and express details. Even if the lines on a page mean nothing to an adult, they mean something to the child. Every drawing has a story, a feeling, and a purpose. Encouraging children to make their drawings increasingly complex helps them to develop specificity of language to express those details, and observational skills to notice them in the real world.
Singing and dancing helps children learn patterns, the rhythm of language, and the sounds of words. The ideas they learn through music – harmony of different sounds, instruments and people working together to create one musical piece, spontaneity, flexibility, and how to create and recreate variations on a theme – carry through to other areas, both academic and social.
Children Represent the Real World through Play
Playing with toy cars, trucks, planes, and other vehicles helps children learn principles of motion. Often, toys enable children to act out real world situations, such as a traffic jam or an upcoming trip to visit grandparents, so that they can process anxiety or recreate a fond memory. Toy vehicles can also serve as catalysts for make-believe, imagination, and role playing for children who are not interested in dolls or dress up.
Putting together puzzles helps children develop spatial reasoning, observe details, and practice hand-eye coordination. When children work together on a puzzle, they practice taking another’s perspective; cooperating as they share ideas; and negotiating roles and material use. Puzzles can also be great tools for helping children develop perseverance and cope with frustration.
Pretending to read and write – reading in the eyes of children — is a necessary precursor to actual reading and writing. Children learn that printed words carry meaning; what it means to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end; and that they have the power to convey meaning. There is a powerful social aspect to sharing books and stories with peers and adults.
Adult Input Makes Learning Explicit
The NAEYC/NCTM position statement recognizes that children do not automatically learn complex ideas through play. Children gain implicit knowledge through pursuing their own interests in play. In order to make that knowledge explicit, parents must participate in and guide the play, giving language and structure to concepts as they arise.
There is an old saying that play is children’s work. Children gain the cognitive skills necessary for later academic work through movement, dramatic play, art, and block play. The role of a parent, teacher or other adult is to carefully observe the play and guide the children through the learning.
Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings: A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2002, Updated 2010). National Association for the Education of Young Children. Accessed March 2009, May 2013.