How we learn

I'm going to try and explain the "how" and "why" of what we do what we do. How do I set up these centers? And why? It's more than just because it's fun.

Dramatic Play

Here's the scholarly reason I do it, from the NAEYC website: (emphasis added)
"Young children engage in various kinds of play, such as physical play, object play, pretend or dramatic play, constructive play, and games with rules. Play gives them opportunities to develop physical competence and enjoyment of the outdoors, understand and make sense of their world, interact with others, express and control emotions, develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Research shows the links between play and foundational capacities such as memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills, and success in school.
Children of all ages love to play. From infancy, children act on the world around them for the pleasure of seeing what happens; for example, repeatedly dropping a spoon on the floor or pulling the cat’s tail. Around age two, children begin to demonstrate symbolic use of objects—for instance, picking up a shell and pretending to drink as from a cup—at least when they have had opportunities to observe others engaging in such make-believe behavior.
From such beginnings, children begin to engage in more mature forms of dramatic play, in which by the age of 3–5 they may act out specific roles, interact with one another in their roles, and plan how the play will go. Such play is influential in developing self-regulation, as children are highly motivated to stick to the roles and rules of the play, and thus grow in the ability to inhibit their impulses, act in coordination with others, and make plans. High-level dramatic play produces documented cognitive, social, and emotional benefits." -Rhian Evans Allvin"
My reason for doing it? It is fun! I think the dramatic play center sets the tone for a theme. I change it each theme, so every 2 weeks, and sometimes more often. It is the most popular center, right up there with art, and is the one that all kids play in during part of self-selected time, every day. This is where conversations happen. This is where the kids have to interact with, and play with, each other. This is where they get to mimic the adult world they live in, as they pretend to be the parent, cashier, baker, firefighter, etc. In dramatic play, they get to act out what they've learned, solidifying this new information, as they put out a fire, act as a worker ant and gather food, or hibernate like a bear. It's amazing to see the difference in their play from day 1 to day 4, as they learn more about a topic and apply that new information into their play. 
It makes me sad to hear parents complain that their kids go to preschool and just waste their time playing dress ups. I've actually had friends tell me they are frustrated that they pay for preschool, only to have their kid "waste their time" playing. This is exactly what they should be spending their time doing! But you already know I believe that. 
Dramatic Play is also a great time to bring literacy into a play-based classroom. We have grocery shopping lists and labels on the food in the shopping center, where children can write on their level. Some will scribble (which is great, because they're connecting written words to their ideas), and some will sound out words, and begin using invented spelling. I'll bring books about paleontologists into a dinosaur digging dramatic play, and they'll ask me to read them as they play. Restaurants have menus and order forms, and written signs. Flower shops have prices listed, plus money and cash registers. The kids may make up nonsense numbers, but they're on their way to understand the meaning of numbers and counting and money. This learning is "hidden" in their play, making it meaningful to what they're doing, and also fun.
I strongly believe in the benefits of dramatic play, and believe it is vital in any early childhood classroom, which is why I was one of the few Kindergarten teachers nowadays, who still used it.
Childhood 101 has another great article on imaginative play here.

Sensory Play
I often get asked what sensory play is. The obvious answer is, play that involves the senses. It usually stimulates more than one of the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and movement.
First thing that usually comes to mind is the sensory table. It's often called a water table or sand table. but I don't like to limit myself! I keep mine outside because, unfortunately, I don't have enough room inside. It's also cleaner this way. We fill it with the typical things like water or sand, but also other materials like wheat, dried pasta, beans, colored rice, and a variety of scooping, measuring, and squirting tools to help us play in them. Play around the sensory table often turns into a dramatic play setting, with some kind of game going on, increasing their social skills. It's also relaxing! I love to sit and run my hand through wheat as I watch them play. Something about scooping and dumping, and covering my hands in it that relaxes me, and the kids. We also have a sandbox outside, and snow in the winter, to add to our sensory play. Playing outside is really one giant sensory experience.
Sensory play also happens often in the art center! We create with all different types and textures of paints, glues, feathers, pom poms, clay, sequins, beads, noodles, etc. Sometimes the art table is turned into a sensory table as we play with play dough, slime, oobleck, shaving cream, or fake snow.
We also cook and play with our food during snack, to increase our sensory play. 
The block center is also a great form of sensory play, as the kids build with different items and learn and explore sizes, textures, and weights and balance.
The kids love sensory play, and are always drawn to it. I've noticed with my own oldest child, sensory play has always been her favorite. She has a short attention span with many things, but can sit with play dough, slime, or kinetic sand, for hours.
This blog gives a great explanation on the importance of sensory play, as well.

Open-ended Art

I am a fan of Bev Bos, who was a leader in the idea of process art, or open-ended art, along with play in early childhood classrooms. I was taught preschool art from her book, Don't Move the Muffin Tins.
In her book she says, "If you could observe the joy of children creating their own art, you would never think "craft" again. Crafts have a value, of course. There comes a time when a child wants a very specific object to take home-a soap dish, a trivet. But such activities shouldn't be called "art" and shouldn't substitute for an art program. I make my own distinction between "art" and "craft" by asking how much participation by an adult is needed once I have presented materials. When the activity is truly art and genuinely creative, all I have to do is put a name on the paper or perhaps stand by to add art supplies."

Open-ended art basically means there is no intentional end result. The idea is that the children each choose their own result. This means while one child paints an intentional picture of their family, another may just make a mess, and that it's ok! I do not choose the end result of their art, the children do that. And the learning comes in that process. They learn how to blend colors and what they make when mixed (science!) . They use fine-motor skills to manipulate brushes, glues, writing supplies, scissors, etc. They engage in sensory play as they manipulate different mediums like varieties of paint, liquid glue, glue sticks, feathers, sequins, shredded paper, glitter (yes, we use messy glitter!), jello, beans, peas, marbles, spinners, etc! Most importantly, they use their imaginations and creativity. They create what they want. They can't mess up or make a mistake because the teacher isn't dictating what it should look like in the end.

Are all the art pieces they bring home, pinterest-worthy masterpieces? Probably not. Some look like a hot mess. But it's a masterpiece to them. They did it. They learned in the process. I had a parent 3 years ago say that the biggest difference she noticed between my preschool her son attended, and the preschool her older kids had attended, was that the art he brought home looked like he actually did it himself. What a great compliment!

You will not see arts and crafts come home from preschool. In a rare case, we will do a "craft" as a large or small group activity, if it has a purpose in our learning. One example would be making a butterfly life cycle out of noodles. It is a craft because I show an example of how we do it, and we do it together to make it a certain way. You will not see crafts like this in the art center for self-selected time. Forget all the things they learn from process art. What a pain for me, as a teacher, to have to sit for an hour at the art center to make sure they make it the "right way!" I do come to the art center to help and watch and engage them in conversation and teach them correct ways to use supplies (don't paint each other, for example), but I need the freedom to move center to center and just let them create on their own. 

I love open-ended art. I like finding new supplies for them to use to get their creative juices going. I love watching them create piece after piece. And I respect that some kids will never come to the art table, or will only do it every once in awhile. You'll notice some cubbies over-flowing with pictures, and others empty each day. It's their choice. I also have a place to display pictures, if they want to. And they can take them home whenever they want to. 

From the NAEYC's website, here is the difference between process-art and product-art.

Characteristics of process-focused art experiences

• There are no step-by-step instructions
• There is no sample for children to follow
• There is no right or wrong way to explore and create
• The art is focused on the experience and on exploration of techniques, tools, and materials
• The art is unique and original
• The experience is relaxing or calming
• The art is entirely the children’s own
• The art experience is a child’s choice
• Ideas are not readily available online
What children might say
“Look what I made!” “I’m going to do another!”
“Can I have more time?”

Characteristics of product-focused art experiences

• Children have instructions to follow
• The teacher created a sample for children to copy
• There’s a right and a wrong way to proceed
• There’s a finished product in mind
• The children’s finished art all looks the same
• The children experience frustration
• The teacher might “fix mistakes”
• The whole class took part in an art project at the same time
• Patterns and examples are readily available online
What children might say
“Can I be done now?” “Is this right?” “I can’t do it.”
“Mine doesn’t look like yours.”

Provide open-ended, creative art experiences by offering activities such as

• Easel painting with a variety of paints and paintbrushes (with no directions)
• Watercolor painting
• Exploring and creating with clay
• Finger painting
• Painting with unusual tools like toothbrushes, paint rollers, potato mashers
• Printing and stamping (stamps purchased or made with sponges)
• Creating spin art using a record player and paint, squirt bottles, paintbrushes, or markers
• Stringing beads independently and creatively
• Weaving cloth, yarn, or paper
• Drawing with pencils, art pens, various sizes of markers, or crayons
• Using homemade doughs
• Making collages using tissue paper, various sizes of paper, glue, paste, glue sticks, scissors, and recycled materials

Tips for leading process-focused art

1. Approach art like open-ended play—for example, provide a variety of materials and see what happens as the child leads the art experience
2. Make art a joyful experience. Let children use more paint, more colors, and make more and more artwork
3. Provide plenty of time for children to carry out their plans and explorations
4. Let children come and go from their art at will
5. Notice and comment on what you see: Look at all the yellow dots you painted
6. Say YES to children’s ideas
7. Offer new and interesting materials
8. Play music in the background
9. Take art materials outside in the natural light
10. Display children’s books with artful illustrations, such as those by Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and Javaka Steptoe
11. Let the children choose whether their art goes home or stays in the classroom
12. Remember that it’s the children’s art, not yours

What children do and learn through process-focused art

Social and emotional
Children relax, focus, feel successful, and can express their feelings
Language and literacy
Children may choose to discuss their art and add print to it (on their own or by dictating to a teacher)
Children compare, predict, plan, and problem solve
Children use small motor skills to paint, write, glue, use clay, and make collages

Block Center

Again, I went to the NAEYC's website to help me explain my reasons for block play. While I understand it, I often have a hard time putting my reasoning into words. This is from the article "A Developmental Look at a Rigorous Block Play Program" by Diane Hobenshield Tepylo, Joan Moss, and Carol Stephenson.
"Benefits for children include the development of motor skills, classification ability, imagination (Hirsch 1996), social skills, language, early reading ability (Hanline, Milton, & Phelps 2010), and later mathematics achievement (Petersen & Levine 2014). Research indicates that block play is also related to spatial reasoning (see Nath & Szücs 2014; Verdine et al., “Find the Missing Piece,” 2014).
For children of preschool age, spatial reasoning involves the structuring of space: noticing and       describing shape, location, orientation, movement, and spatial relations (NGA & CCSSO 2010;
  Ontario Ministry of Education 2010)."
    "Although there is a need for further research on the benefits of block play for spatial and STEM    learning, evidence strongly suggests that block play is important in the early years in helping children understand many important concepts in geometry, number, and measurement. For example, in block play children often count, compare heights and volumes, and transform, compose, and decompose geometric shapes (Clements & Sarama 2009; Verdine et al.,“Finding the Missing Piece,” 2014). Indeed, to support equitable learning for all children, NAEYC and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), in their joint position statement on mathematics in early childhood (2010), recommend carefully planned and implemented block programs for all young children."
My goal has always been to have a big shelf of wooden blocks, but as I went to buy some last year, I thought about my own 3-year old about to enter my preschool, and his affinity for throwing things. So, in the interest of safety, I bought foam blocks instead. I bought 2 different sets to have different sizes and shapes. These, along with my cardboard brick blocks, are always out and available. Sometimes, I will pull them off the shelf onto the floor to be the main focal point, but usually, the children know they are always there and that they can play with them anytime. Each preschool day, I will put something else out on the carpet that can be used for large-motor play. This includes other types of blocks (Legos, Duplos, small wooden blocks, Lincoln Logs, Magnet tiles, magnet builders). I also will put out large floor puzzles, play sets like Fisher Price Little People, or a farm, castle, or doll house. I'll often add animals and dolls to the block center as well. Sometimes the block center becomes an extension of a larger dramatic play center, or has other large motor activities such as bowling or the gymnastics mat.  

Small Manipulatives

The purpose of the small manipulatives center, which is at the front of the classroom where we sit for large group later, is similar to the block center, on a smaller scale. While children will reap the same benefits from block play such as geometry, spatial reasoning, counting, etc from many things we play here, the goal is fine motor skills. This is where we use lacing cards and beads, use tweezers and pom poms, puzzles, clothespins, small magnets, wikki stix, small blocks, etc. Anything that requires pinching, grabbing, holding This is also where a lot of themed-academics come into play with academic folder games or activities with ABCs or numbers. 

I've heard people bragging about their kids reading before Kindergarten, yet they don't know how to hold scissors or pencils correctly. While reading is great, you'll see in all aspects of my preschool that I am teaching them to read and write in a developmentally-appropriate way by helping them reach all the pre-reading and pre-writing skills they need. Developing their fine motor skills is critical to learning how to write! So before we learn to write their name, which we get to, we strengthen their little muscles to prepare them to hold a pencil first. A lot of frustration can be avoided if we focused more on these little skills before we get to the big ones!

Here's a list of 40 Fine Motor Skills Activities. You'll notice that fine motor skills extend beyond the Small Manip center and are in most things that we do.
Writing Center

My reasoning and setting up of the writing center are very similar to the art center. This is an open-ended center where the children always know they can come here to create. The main difference is, that this is where many supplies are always available. The writing center always has pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, and paper. I also have other writing supplies that vary day by day and include colored pencils, different kinds of pens, markers, stickers, stencils, white boards, chalk boards, hole punches, tape, stationary, cards, etc. 

This center focuses on fine-motor skills like writing and cutting. I am often here helping children hold scissors correctly. Often, this center plays into others. When I have the grocery store center, children come here to write their lists. When we have the post office, they come here to write their letters and post cards. It is usually just a center that children come to to color. They love making pictures for their families and for each other and the teacher. I think they appreciate the consistency, always knowing the supplies that are readily available. But they also enjoy the theme-oriented stickers that pop up to make it different and interesting.

I love hearing them say the words they're "writing" as they scribble left to right. This shows me they understand that print has a meaning, and they know that writing is a way to express their thoughts. We do that during our journal writing as well, but here, it's their choice to come, so it's more authentic and meaningful to them. 
Reading Center

The reading center is meant to be quiet and relaxing. It has bookshelves with books that change according to the theme, so every 2 weeks is a fresh batch of books. I have 2 bean bag chairs so they can sit and relax as they look at books, or have me or Miss Kim read to them. The bean bags are tempting and the kids want to use them to be turtles, or to run and jump in. I try to be pretty lenient and child-focused and let them explore in creative ways, but this is one place I don't allow that. One, it raises the level of noise in our classroom, and two, they need this quiet space and they need to know it's always there. Even the rough and tumbliest kids, love to come sit here quietly. I'm always pleasantly surprised when one child asks me to come sit and read a book, at how many more join in and gather around as we're reading. The reasons for this center are obvious. Increasing literacy. Children should be read to at least 20 minutes a day, and if they're reading books in their free time with me, plus being read to in large group, and again at home, they should be easily getting their 20 minutes in. I love reading. I love introducing the kids to a variety of books, fiction and non-fiction, and letting them choose which ones they want to read. I love teaching them that they can learn more about a topic by reading about it, and I do that by providing lots of books about each topic we are learning about.
Outside Time

This picture I have under my preschool philosophy sums up what we learn outside:
I was shocked in looking for a preschool for my oldest daughter, that I couldn't find one that even gave the kids outside time. Granted, I was also shocked at how few offered any free play time at all. Outside time is an extension of our self-selected free play time, it just takes place outside! We always have the sandbox for sensory play, the swing set for large motor play, and the play house for dramatic play. They can run and play and yell and do all the things kids love to do outside. I also keep the sensory table outside for sensory play. I also try to add different activities to switch things up. These include balls, basketball hoop, baseball tee and bat, bubbles, art table, diggers, pools, hula hoops, chalk, sidewalk paint, squirt bottles, tents, tunnels, parachute, colored water for the snow, shovels, etc. Just like inside, they are exploring and choosing what they'd like to do, and have a wide variety of activities to choose from. I've also taught them games like duck duck goose, red light green light, and red rover. Mostly, they just love to run and play. We love searching for bugs, watching for changes in the season, and exploring. Outside time is essential in building all the skills I've mentioned above: large motor skills, small motor skills, creativity, social skills, etc. It changes up our play and allows kids to open up in ways they wouldn't inside. It also gets our wiggles out! On days we can't go out because of bad weather (this especially happens in January when the temperatures go below freezing and the air quality is terrible-otherwise we try to get out, no matter the weather), I notice a huge change in the children's focus. They have a hard time going into large group being ready to listen and learn. They need the release that large motor activities give them, and it's just different outside.
More on outside play:

Outdoor Play Is Essential to Whole Child Development

Math Learning—and a Touch of Science—in the Outdoor World



I almost published this post without mentioning snack! It came to my mind last minute, because it's such a routine part of our day, I didn't feel the need to explain it. Then I remembered that my daughter's preschool didn't have snack, and realized it might need some explaining!

The first reason we have snack is obvious. The kids get hungry. Hungry and thirsty kids aren't really willing to learn. Now, none of my kids are coming to school hungry because they don't have enough food, but that wasn't true when I taught Kindergarten. We had daily snack because the kids truly were hungry. In my preschool, snack isn't meant to fill them up for hours and get them through the day. It's just a snack.

My second reason is social. During free play time, the kids socialize with whomever they want. They go to activities as they please, playing with others or not. At snack, we eat "family style" because we are a preschool family. We push the smaller tables next to the big one, and eat all together. The children learn responsibility, because they are the ones that bring over the tables and chairs after clean up time. They learn responsibility as they are in charge of handing out the hand sanitizer, napkins or plates, and cups. They learn to look out for others besides only themselves doing these jobs too. They learn about others as we pass around the snack and drink because they are told the amount to start with, so there's enough for everyone. They learn to pass to their neighbor, and wait their turn as the drink or snack is passed. They learn to pour their own drinks, and clean up their own messes, which happens often. They learn to clean up after themselves as well, as I won't clean up for them. So many great social skills.

My third reason is for cooking experiences. At least once a theme, but usually more, the snack is related to the theme, and it's often an experience, instead of just a snack handed to them. We have made bread, applesauce, smoothies, waffles, pancakes, porridge, pizza, ladybug pizza, cookies, popcorn, green eggs and ham, and egg salad. Those are just the ones that come to mind now. When we cook, they learn math and science skills, along with taking turns. Besides cooking, we also have snacks that correlate to themes like eating blackberries when we learn about bears, or eating plants when we learn about herbivore dinosaurs. It adds another sensory experience (taste) to help solidify what we're learning about. We also make snacks that are just assembly, but no cooking, like our banana airplanes, or graham cracker traffic lights, to go along with the theme.

Where's the Academics?

I feel a lot of pressure, when people ask about my preschool, to share why it's not academic. As I found in searching for a preschool for my own daughter, they all seem to be academic these days. And if you've already read my philosophy on teaching, and all the above explanations of how I teach, you already know by now why and how I teach a play-based way. BUT, that doesn't mean there are no academics at all. It's all about presenting them using Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP in the early-childhood world). 

In all the above centers described, we are learning academic things all the time. Letters, numbers, rhyming, theme-based content in science and social studies, etc. Also, large and small group is where I introduce academic content. We read books and sing songs to learn more about a topic. Each theme, we focus on a vocabulary word to increase their vocabulary. We add it to our word wall and sing the ABCs to find the letter it starts with. I do not sit the students down and do skill and drill to teach the alphabet, but we use it and talk about it all the time. We find the letters in their names, we play games with the ABCs, we eat alphabet snacks and share what letters we found, then find them on the chart on the wall and think of things that start with that letter. 

Math is taught in a similar way. We make patterns, sort, graph, compare, and count objects related to our theme, so they don't notice we're having a math lesson. With all these academic things I'm teaching, my focus is on introducing them to things I know they're going to learn in Kindergarten. The alphabet, numbers, and math concepts will be familiar. But my purpose is not mastery in preschool. I never test or assess the students. I'm constantly observing to guide my teaching into what they need more practice with, but absolutely no individual assessments or reports sent home. This would not be developmentally-appropriate practice. 

Browse through any blog post where I describe our themed learning and you will see the academic content woven naturally within the play-based model. When kids are engaged in their learning, and guiding it through their interests, and choosing to do it, they are more likely to learn. I don't force them to go to the reading center to read more about a topic, but I love when they call me over and ask me to read to them and they learn more and ask questions, and it leads to more learning. We don't practice handwriting, but I love catching them in the writing center, dictating their scribbles as they choose to do it on their own. As you can see, early childhood is my passion and I love being one of a few play-based preschools in this area, helping children prepare for Kindergarten by playing!


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