Learning Through Play

I teach a workshop by this title, but also include the topic of learning through play in many other trainings. So often teachers tell me they provide time for children to play, but that “play” time is interrupted by teacher activities, small groups, or otherwise teacher directed choices.Teachers tell me they do this because the parents want it. They need to be more “academic,” whatever that means! Really, we’re talking about three and four year olds.

What most teachers mean when they say “academics” are school readiness skills. So let’s define readiness skills:

  • knowing how to get along with others
  • being able to work or play independently, with a partner, in small groups, and with the whole class
  • expressing your feelings in an appropriate way
  • understanding how to share and take turns (although this doesn’t mean that you are able to do this all the time)
  • listening to others
  • talking to others, communicating your ideas
  • following simple directions

Notice that “reading”, “counting”, “sorting”, etc. are not on the list. Why? Because at 5 years old, it is not developmentally appropriate to expect children to be masters of reading and math skills.  In preschool programs, if children are exposed to a variety of developmentally appropriate experiences in a print rich environment, they will learn the pre-reading and pre-math skills necessary for success in school. They will, in fact, be ready.

So how do children develop these readiness skills? Through PLAY! When children have the TIME for open-ended, child-directed play that is joyful, and allows for children to make choices, the social skills needed for school readiness will develop.

When children play, they learn how to resolve conflicts. Who will go first? What rules will they play by? How will they share the materials? When children play, they learn self-control. How can we build a block tower without knocking it over? How can I paint at the easel without getting paint drips everywhere? I want to play in dramatic play, but there are already 4 friends. What will I do while I wait for a turn? When children play, they learn self-concept. I figured out how to put the puzzle together all by myself! I like how my friend rolled the clay to make a snake. I can do that too! When children play, they learn how to communicate their needs and share ideas. Interacting with other children in dramatic play, blocks, on the playground, at the sensory table encourages children to talk with each other. They describe what they see, hear, feel, or want to do. They act out stories they’ve read or social situations they’ve experienced.

When children play, they also learn:

  • How to be lawyers by practicing their negotiating skills. “I want to be the waitress today. You were the waitress yesterday!”
  • How to be architects by creating structures. “Let’s see how tall we can make this building.” “Do you think we can make ramps and bridges that stretch across the whole room?”
  • How to be scientists by making comparisons and engaging their natural curiosity. “I wonder what will happen if I roll the ball up the ramp?” “This leaf looks just the one we saw in the story.”
  • How to be composers by using a variety of materials to explore sound. “I can make music with this can filled with beans.” “When I tap this stick on different objects it makes different sounds.”
  • How to be artists and express themselves. “This painting is my blue mood.” “Look, when I dip the tissue paper in glue I can make a collage shape like Eric Carle.”
  • How to be authors and communicate their ideas. “I want to use the photos from our nature walk to make a book.” “I wrote a story about my dog. See my picture? There’s her fluffy fur.”

The list is endless. The best thing we can do for children is to give them time to make choices, let them play for long periods of uninterrupted time, and encourage their budding curiosity and explorations.

Sometimes, we just need to get out of the way!

The hard part for many teachers is giving up control. Sometimes we think that if we plan for everything, and we set up specific experiences and direct where and when children play, we’re teaching them more. If we don’t do that, then chaos will ensue. The truth is, and I learned this the hard way, the more we give control to the children to make choices, and the less we interfere with their play, the more relaxed the group is. There are fewer behavior challenges. There are fewer conflicts. Children are far more engaged when they make choices, and they are more likely to play for extended periods of time.

For many teachers, allowing for open-ended, child-selected play requires stepping out of their comfort zone. That’s really hard to do.  The key is setting up the environment so that there are many opportunities for children to use materials that are interesting and capture their attention. Try it for one afternoon’s play session. See what happens, and let me know!



My Review of Stretch Rope Circular 8′ (Pack of 12)

old fashioned fun

By Innovations in Education, LLC from Maryland on 10/2/2011


5out of 5

Pros: Durable, Easy To Setup

Best Uses: Active play

Describe Yourself: Casual/ Recreational

I bought these to use during a workshop on arts integration. During a workshop I attended, we used these elastic bands to create shapes. The shapes were formed by stretching the bands over and around our bodies in as many ways as we could conceive. Very creative! Would be a wonderful activity with preschoolers.


My Review of Interlox Crystal Building Shapes

Originally submitted at S&S Worldwide

Build, design, create! No hardware or tools necessary. Simply clip the edges together to create buildings, people, robots, fantasy animals and more. Translucent plastic panels with inset details in 5 beautiful colors. 96 pieces. Ages 3+.

nice product

By Innovations in Education, LLC from Maryland on 10/2/2011


4out of 5

Pros: Colorful and Fun, Holds Attention, Durable

Best Uses: Preschoolers, Toddlers

Describe Yourself: Child Care Professional

Excellent building toy with a variety of uses. Also works very well on the light table. Endless possibilities!


What is DAP?

There’s an old Jewish parable that says if you have 10 Rabbis in a room, you get 11 different opinions. I believe the same is true about early childhood educators and Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). If you ask 10 early childhood educators to define DAP, you’ll probably get 11 different answers.

What is DAP? In it’s simplest form DAP is

  • identifying each child’s developmental level
  • providing experiences that help each child blossom

There are many more detailed and complex descriptions of DAP, but the basics are the same.

Each child has their own developmental journey. As educators, our goal should be to help each child be successful on their journey. Finding the right teaching strategies to support each child’s journey is part of the process. Our challenge is recognizing that a strategy that worked for one child may not work for a different child. Or, strategies that are successful in one setting are not successful in a different setting.

What qualifies as a DAP experience?

  • open-ended
  • everyone can be successful
  • multiple entry points (all children can participate in a way that is comfortable for them)
  • hands-on
  • interesting to the child(ren)
  • active and engaging
  • captures a child’s attention

DAP experiences also include these elements:

  • choices for children
  • opportunities to build language skills
  • opportunities to develop social skills
  • creativity and problem solving

But, I would say that one of the most important elements of DAP is



Children need TIME to play. Children need to TIME to explore. Children need TIME to create and explore and build and take apart. Children need uninterrupted TIME to test out their own theories of how things work. Children need uninterrupted TIME to discover new ideas and explore new materials.  Children need uninterrupted TIME to build relationships with others, both peers and caregivers. Children need uninterrupted TIME to practice new skills and share their ideas. But most of all, children need uninterrupted TIME to just BE!

Let me know your thoughts on DAP. How do you define DAP? Would you add or change any of the elements I’ve listed? What do you consider to be the most important element of DAP? Is it TIME, or is it something else?

The Wonder of Being Two

Imagine what it would be like to see a creepy, crawly caterpillar for the very first time. You notice it’s striped colors, and how it’s inching its way along on a piece of grass.


Can you find the creepy, crawly caterpillar?

If you were noticing this caterpillar for the very first time, what thoughts might be going through your head?

  • Would you stop and spend some time watching to see where it goes and how it moves?
  • Would you want to immediately reach out and touch it, maybe holding it a little too tightly (oops!)?
  • Would you turn and run the other way the moment the caterpillar begins to move ( a scream might escape your lips, a tear from your eye)?
  • Would you wonder how it tastes?

If you’re two, you might do all of those things.

For a two year old, the world is filled with wonder. So many sights, sounds and experiences are brand new. What we as adults take for granted and think of as familiar is utterly fascinating to a two year old.

The senses of a two year old are constantly firing. Their minds are always wondering:

  • How does it feel?
  • What does it taste like?
  • What can I DO with this?

Some moments, the concentration of a two year old is endless. Other moments, their concentration is fleeting.

But in order to answer all of those questions floating around in the mind of a two year old, we need to provide multiple opportunities for them to explore and discover the same materials over and over again.

As caregivers, the best gift we can give to a two year old is time. Time to explore, time to discover. Time to make a mess. Time to sit and watch. Time to play. Time to be together with our full attention. Time to just be.

It takes time to wonder. There is no rushing the magic of new discoveries.

To Label or Not to Label

Q: Dear Randi,

In setting up my 3 year old classroom, I am struggling with something, and I am hoping you don’t mind helping me. I am labeling certain areas of the classroom (mostly on shelves) with words and pictures to help the children when it is clean up time (i.e. blocks, toy food). The pictures will hopefully help them know where to put things, and the words seemed like a good way to reinforce literacy at the same time. Do you think it also makes sense to label other things around the classroom that would not require a picture since they never move (i.e. plant, computer)? These labels would be much more exposed. On one hand, having words around seems wonderful. On the other hand, it seems like it could get out of control and be a bit visually overwhelming, and is that necessary for 3 year olds who cannot read. I keep going back and forth in my mind on this, and I would love your opinion.


A: Dear Label-maker,

This question comes up often, and it can be quite confusing.

Everything you place in your room, and the placement of every item in your room should be intentional. When it comes to labeling, the first question to ask yourself is why are you labeling things? What is the purpose of the label?

As you said, you are labeling the shelves and baskets to help children know where to put things away, therefore, this labeling serves the purpose of managing materials (social-emotional development), and organization (approaches toward learning). It also reinforces emerging literacy skills, with the picture and word. This is called functional print. It serves a specific purpose and is intentional by design.

We often hear the term “print-rich environment” for early childhood classrooms, yet rarely do we hear what that exactly means. A print-rich environment is one in which children are encouraged to develop emerging literacy skills. This involves having “environmental print” in the classroom, authentic opportunities for reading and writing, and other examples of “functional print.”

Environmental print means words/ phrases that would typically be found on common objects. Examples of environmental print include “STOP” on a stop sign, the “EXIT” sign by your outside door, the big arch for McDonald’s, the Target bull’s eye, “Cheerios” on a box of cereal, “Quaker Oats” on an oatmeal container. Environmental print includes logos and font styles that help with brand recognition. Environmental print can also be the universal symbols for hospital (H), or bathrooms, or other road signs and symbols.

Functional print, as mentioned above, is intentional and serves a purpose for children (and adults). So the shelf and material labels are functional print. Functional print also includes class rules, the daily schedule, documentation or labels included with classroom displays, and children’s names when used for a purpose such as attendance or center choice. Functional print also includes the words “Science journal” on the outside of the composition book you place in your discovery area. It includes the words/pictures you place on index cards and slip onto a ring binder, related to each of your centers. For example, in the dramatic play area, you have a ring of index cards with words/pictures of house, mom, dad, sink, phone, refrigerator, post office, etc. Note that these words are not taped to pieces of furniture. Why you ask? Because when children begin playing, they are not paying attention to those words. It is just visual clutter. As children’s play matures, they start to recognize that there are words they use all the time in certain areas of the classroom. If you as the teacher are modeling and encouraging children to write about their play, they will gravitate towards those word rings and use them to write or draw about what they are doing. (Note that this may not happen until March or later!)

So, where do those labels for the computer, the plant, the window, the door, etc. fit?

Ask yourself these questions:

1. What is my intention in putting up these labels?

2. Is this word environmental print?

3. Is this word functional print?

If you can answer question 1, and say yes to question 2 or 3, put up the labels.

If your answer to question 1 is that you want to support emerging literacy skills, but #2 and 3 are NO, then find another way to support literacy. I would suggest taking photos of objects in the classroom (maybe even include a child in each photo). Place one photo on a page, add your label to your photo page, and create a class book to put on your bookshelf. Continue to take photos of children, everyday activities, special discoveries, etc. and create more class books. This is the best way to support budding readers.


I’m glad you found us! I’ve been in the early childhood education field for many years. During that time, the research and knowledge about child development and best practices in education have changed dramatically. My personal views about education have also changed during that time, based on my experiences with children, their teachers, and the latest research. I believe that education is a lifelong journey. We’re never quite there yet, and everyday with children and their teachers opens new opportunities for learning great things! I hope you’ll join me in my journey.