Play to Learn: Early Childhood “Play Experts” Teach New Skills in Creative Settings

Play to Learn: Early Childhood “Play Experts” Teach New Skills in Creative Settings
While nursery students grow, buy, and sell produce at their own farmers market, junior kindergarteners explore the rainforest and senior kindergarteners tour child-sized New York City landmarks that they have built themselves from classroom materials. All of this is taking place in the early childhood classrooms at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, where immersive, complex play scenarios form the basis for all types of learning.


“When children have immersive play experiences, early academic skills—such as literacy, numeracy, vocabulary, and language—all emerge naturally,” says Dr. Lisa Wright, director of the Hollingworth Center at Teachers College Columbia University. Dr. Wright is working with the faculty and students on these new play initiatives, all of which were designed to align with curriculum already in place and to enhance classroom learning.

In designated areas in both nursery classrooms, teachers and administrators have created a thoughtfully curated farmers market to provide a setting for play. The markets are filled with props—including a wide variety of play produce, cash registers, wooden crates, aprons, grocery bags, and even credit cards—that teachers chose to guide language and to help children develop their own narratives.

The theme is not relegated to just one area of the classroom; children utilize the whole room, often choosing hollow blocks to build appropriately sized stands to display their food at the market, or building paddocks for the animals on the farm. The classrooms’ sensory bins are filled with oddly shaped gourds and pumpkins, corn kernels, and scoops. Farm-related books have been added to the libraries, and art and baking projects reflect the theme.

This multi-sensory approach to play allows children to imaginatively explore real life themes that build on their personal experiences, says Dr. Wright. Each child identifies his or her own role in the market, such as buyer or seller, and is able to sustain play that is based on a mutual understanding of their roles. Children begin to use more complex and specific language as their play evolves and requires them to solve problems and negotiate.

“Play becomes increasingly complex when it is social,” says Dr. Wright, “because there’s going to be conflict, negotiation, and growth. A teacher can step in and scaffold, or children can resolve the problem themselves.”

In the junior kindergarten rainforest unit, children learn all about the geography, climate, and species that thrive in rainforests. While students explored a replica of the rainforest during their very first field trip to the Central Park Zoo, the faculty built a more intimate learning experience in the classrooms by creating rainforest installations. Students have become classroom scientists, embarking on their own expeditions using a four-layered, multi-dimensional model of a rainforest.

To fully embody the role of a scientist and nurture their play, students have access to magnifying glasses, binoculars, flashlights, and protective gear. In their own journals, students record their findings of this microhabitat. They play using puppets specific to the rainforest, explore a sensory bin filled with frogs, pebbles, and measuring cups, and use their props and simple costumes to pretend to be explorers.

“The marvelous thing about play is that children will gravitate toward their interests and areas of talent,”says Dr. Wright, citing the example of a JK explorer she encountered using his knowledge of predator and prey to identify certain types of snakes. “Another child might play in more fanciful and imaginative ways. These scenarios provide opportunities for every child.”

In unison with the senior kindergarten’s study of the alphabet, children learn about New York City by focusing on its most notable and historic landmarks—each week, a landmark is chosen in accordance with the letter of the week. For example, when focusing on the letter “Nn,” students learned about The New York Times building, discovering how a newspaper operates and the importance of reporting the news in our world. Students then worked collaboratively to create a structure of the building out of newspaper.

Most recently, for “Mm” week, SK focused on The Metropolitan Museum of Art, learning about artists featured there such as Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michael Basquiat. They created their own artwork inspired by these artists and built their own replicas of the museum using classroom materials. These artistic creations are on display in Landmark Galleries in each senior kindergarten classroom.

When working within a designated theme, children are engaging in higher levels of play, says Dr. Wright. “What's quite extraordinary is that if you prepare the environment with intention, these skills emerge from the children in authentic and meaningful ways.”

As the school year progresses, the faculty will assess what engages students the most. While the content and themes may change, the fundamental aspects of play will stay the same.

Dr. Wright commends the early childhood faculty for skillfully embracing this renewed focus on play. “Teachers have taken on the role of play experts. They have identified and curated new materials to enhance their students’ play. They engaged in professional development to reinforce their work. They are doing it so well, and they are seeing the impact their efforts have on their students.”