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Play-Based Preschool Curriculum

By | Preschool | No Comments

Finding the right learning environment for your children can be challenging. You want your kids to be happy and well-prepared for their next educational experiences and the world around them.

Often, the discussion over which experiences comprise the best types of preschool education comes down to a conversation about what values to prioritize, and there is no question about the importance of play for kids as an essential outlet for a child’s growth and development.

Educators have demonstrated that not only can play-based education compare with more traditional views in learning content, but that it can also have positive effects on motivation and creativity, as well as school-readiness skills.

What Is a Play-Based Curriculum?

At the heart of play-based learning is the concept that humans are naturally curious and want to interact with their environment. Through this process, learners — especially children — engage with ideas and challenges that are meaningful to them. Psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky influenced the development of play-based learning, which uses a child’s natural inclination to interact with and learn about the situations around them.

Though it may be difficult to work into a concise definition, play-based learning has several recognizable traits.

  • Interactive: Interactivity is the difference between playing in a baseball game and watching one. The activity must require input on the learner’s part, so the ability to affect the environment is a critical piece in children learning new information.
  • Exploratory: One of the principal tenets of a game is that there is no predetermined outcome. While particular rules might direct toward specific scenarios, the overall concept is that the developments and conclusions are unknown.
  • Involves risk: Because of those unknown developments, playing involves risk evaluation. Each decision carries inherent societal or game-related risks that help students understand the results of their actions. This risk helps create a sense of investment.
  • Enjoyable: Although it seems obvious, play is an enjoyable activity. That doesn’t mean there can’t be hardships or difficulties, but on the whole, the idea of playing itself should elicit a positive response.
  • Meaningful: Play allows students to act out their perceptions of the world around them. They can try new ways of interacting with society and peers, constructing meaning and understanding in the process.

Using these guiding principles, teachers and mentors can support children in finding worthwhile ways to interact with their environment. However, in guiding students, it’s essential that it remain the child’s play, not an adult’s scripted version of how the child should play. One of the common problems advocates face is seeing adult-centered activities disguised as “play-based learning.” In these scenarios, adults imply a situation will be student-led, exploratory play, but in reality, it is a contrived method for an adult to get a predetermined result.

How Should Students Play?

Another hurdle in describing play is that it can take on so many forms. Does it involve another child? Does someone have to be in charge? These questions can frustrate some educators in more traditional settings, as the open-ended nature of play can feel like a lack of control.

Here are a few ways children might choose to engage.

  • Social play: Social play is when students create scenarios or games with their peers. This type of play can encourage social connection and interaction.
  • Individual play: This type of play occurs with a child develops games or otherwise engages in personal creative endeavors, such as making up stories or drawing a picture.
  • Guided play: Guided play differs from free play in that an adult might set out a particular problem or situation that children then play through. Teachers can assist by asking questions or extending the game students are playing.

However, note that this can quickly become a direct lesson with a planned outcome. For instance, in guided play, an adult might present a restaurant scenario and then participate in the process as children fill the scene. Conversely, with direct lessons, an adult might tell the students to imagine the restaurant and then to count money to work with numbers.

What Are the Differences Between Play-Based Learning and Direct Instruction?

When comparing play-based learning and traditional direct instruction, examining aspects of interactivity and exploration can often be enough to tell the difference, but another defining trait marks an even more distinct division. In a direct-instruction model, the teacher is the focal point of the classroom. The teacher passes along all instruction — almost always to the group rather than to an individual student.

Another indicator of direct instruction is that someone plans the outcomes, even if they involve some aspects of interactivity or enjoyability. For example, a preschool teacher may set up several colors of paints to teach students about mixing primary colors. In a direct-instruction mode, the teacher will tell students which paints to mix and what colors they should expect. In a play-based classroom, students will have access to mix and experiment any way they want to find how the colors work together. Even though both lessons are interactive, only one is exploratory with unknown outcomes.

Play-Based Learning vs. Direct Instruction

Educators and theorists alike often view differing methods of education as opposing forces. Though not an explicit dichotomy — both direct lessons and play-based education can share these qualities — these learning styles clearly emphasize and develop particular traits based on their implementation and strengths. Because of these differences, there are some perceived pros and cons of play-based learning and direct instruction.

  • Depth vs. breadth: Direct instruction, especially in preschool and the early elementary years, can be an excellent way to provide information on a breadth of topics. Adults give children the information they need, then move on. In contrast, play-based learning may take more time to develop, but the understandings often make a profound impact because there is a meaningful connection. Moreover, as students explore, they find more information about topics of their interest, rather than moving on to another piece of information. Students naturally dive deeper into subjects.
  • Knowledge vs. skill emphasis: Play-based classrooms also emphasize different forms of knowledge. Direct instruction often focuses on obtaining a particular piece of information, and the connections to self and world are secondary to that. However, play emphasizes soft skills that have become integral in both early and secondary education. That isn’t to say play-based learning doesn’t address basic knowledge, nor that traditional learning does not integrate soft skills. But shifting the focus changes the emphasis of the lessons and traits students interact with, ultimately leading to different understandings of the world.
  • Self-discovery vs. authority-assigned meaning: Play-based education reflects more liberation-based education theories like those of Paulo Freire. Writing in the 1970s, Freire proposed that education is less about passing along facts and more about a sense of self-and-world discovery. Freire suggested traditional classrooms established teachers as “a banker,” whose success depends on successfully “depositing” facts into the students. Freire described this type of education as an act of aggression that inhibits students from fully realizing their potential, instead turning them into who the teacher demands. As in play-based learning, Freire advocated for a system in which students discover their views on the world through interactions with each other, rather than passively accepting the world around them.
  • Autonomy vs. hierarchy: Along with breaking the chain of teacher-implanted knowledge, play-based education also establishes a sense of learning autonomy. Meanwhile, traditional education focuses more on a chain of command in which learning happens because the adult says it should happen. While playing, students learn because they are curious and invested, but in adult-focused classrooms, students learn because the teacher tells them to.

What Are the Benefits of Play-Based Learning?

Play-based learning has many benefits for children. In addition to being fun and validating a child’s sense of importance and agency in the world, play-based education develops positive traits and may improve particular brain functions.

  • Comfort with the unstructured: Educators from a more traditional background sometimes condemn play-based or student-led education as messy or chaotic. Standardized education, in general, assumes conveying a set of central knowledge from point A to point B. It’s easy to see, then, how play-based learning can come across as chaotic and perhaps even unproductive through that lens. However, that mindset focuses on adult control of all situations. If the ultimate goal is every child sitting and listening to an adult, having more than a dozen different learning experiences happening simultaneously can seem like an impossible learning environment.
  • Love of learning: Because children’s curiosity is the root of play, play-based education reinforces the idea that accumulating knowledge is about asking questions about the world and then working to answer them. It provides a sense of meaningful accomplishment as kids engage with and overcome challenges, leading to a love of discoveries and conquering difficult tasks.
  • Reinstitutes play: Despite the known importance of play in preschool, current educational trends have pushed play further to the sidelines to present more standardized, traditional learning. As schools continue to require more from students at younger ages and preschools scramble to push preliminary skills to students, they are replacing free play time with direct instruction time. In fewer than two decades since the implementation of No Child Left Behind legislation, average elementary school recess time across the country has decreased by more than 10 minutes, now coming in at under half an hour. In response, some preschools have followed suit in the belief that it will prepare students for kindergarten. By instituting play-based education, schools can maintain academic expectation while reinstituting playtime for children.
  • Develops executive functioning skills: Play has been shown to help children develop executive functioning skills. These critical brain processes help students with organization, impulsivity and attention. Researchers found this is especially helpful in response to abuse or neglect.
  • Socialization factors: Another critical aspect of play-based education is that it allows for more direct interaction between students. In play-based educational systems, students who have different skills, abilities and backgrounds work together to form the world they are constructing. This system is in contrast to traditional direct instruction, in which the teacher organizes and directs much of the interaction.
  • Fostering autonomous learners: One of the best features of play-based learning programs is that they promote a natural sense of curiosity and exploration. Traditional education setups encourage students to follow the teacher’s instructions and learn the material because it will make instructors and parents happy. While forming strong relationships with adult role models is essential, it can cause students to see learning as an extrinsic goal meant to please people around them from an extremely early age. Conversely, play-based education at young ages encourages students to pursue their interests and engage in challenges they find meaningful. Rather than only participating in learning to please others, students develop a sense of intrinsic satisfaction from overcoming obstacles and learning about topics they have decided are important.

Is Play-Based Learning Best for Your Child?

Though play-based curricula may have many positives, there are still several components you might need to weigh before selecting to embrace a play-based learning environment for your child.

If you are unsure of this, consider the following factors.

  • Child’s personality: Though all students can benefit from a play-based curriculum, it’s essential to think about whether this teaching style will mesh with your child’s personality. Learning to face open-ended challenges is vital for all students, but a lack of focused orders can frustrate some children. It can be especially difficult for students who have already experienced more traditional school settings that define learning as something a student receives, rather than something they fully engage in.
  • Parenting philosophy: All parents weigh values differently. For example, while most parents would agree they value both student autonomy and listening to authority figures, they could disagree about what to prioritize more. Like any other curriculum, play-based learning implicitly ascribes importance to particular aspects, and it’s important to consider whether these values align with your parental beliefs.
  • Access and quality of play: While allowing students to have autonomy in choosing their style of play, several factors can help determine how educational the experience will be. After all, not all play is equal. Moreover, trained adults or staff can help children reflect on their learning and skills, which is critical to students getting the most out of their play. Because of this, it’s essential to consider whether your child has not only the freedom to play, but access to experiences that will lead to meaningful interactions, as well as trained mentors who can develop reflective skills that stay with children from early elementary through their adult lives.

How Can You Find a Play-Based Child Education Program?

Ultimately, finding the best preschool for your child comes down to your parenting philosophy. In addition to looking for a place where your child can be safe and happy, you want to find an environment that will help them take advantage of their natural curiosity and grow, and deciding between different curriculum models for early childhood education can be difficult.

Haymarket Children’s Academy specializes in providing a play-based preschool curriculum in Gainesville, VA. If you live in this area and are interested in learning more about play-based preschools near you, please contact us for information.

What You Should Consider When Choosing a Preschool

By | Preschool | No Comments

In 2013, President Barack Obama highlighted the need for America’s preschool-aged children to have access to high-quality early education. His administration’s goal was to see six million children enrolled in preschool by the year 2020.

The president’s initiative shed light on something educators have known for years: Early access to education is a vital part of a child’s development. The best way to prepare your child for their years in school is by choosing a preschool that will provide a solid educational and social foundation for your child.

What to Look for in a Preschool

Choosing a preschool that will be a good fit for your child, can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first time. A lot of people incorrectly believe that a preschool is just a place for kids to play and eat snacks the year before they go to “real school.” However, choosing the right preschool can lay a foundation for your child for years to come.

Some basic signs of a good preschool include an established curriculum, qualified staff and a clean facility, but there’s more to it than that. Your final decision on where to send your child to school may ultimately be somewhat subjective. After all, your child has needs that are unique to them, and those needs may not be able to be addressed at just any preschool — and that’s okay.

To choose a preschool, you’ll want to schedule a visit, tour the facility and sit down with the director if you can. You’ll also want to go in with a list of questions to ask preschools about their facilities, their staff and their educational philosophy.

Keep reading for our list of tips and questions to ask when you’re looking to pick the best preschool.

Is My Child Ready?

The first step in knowing what to consider when choosing a preschool is to determine if your child is ready. Many preschool programs are geared toward three and four-year-olds, but some do offer programs as early as age two and a half. Age shouldn’t be the only consideration, though. A child’s readiness for preschool depends more on their personality and development than their physical age.

In addition to age requirements, you’ll also want to ask the following questions when you’re choosing a preschool:

1. Does my child need to be potty trained?

The answer to this question will vary, even among the best preschools, so it’s important to find out, especially if your child isn’t yet toilet trained. Some schools will welcome children who are still wearing diapers or Pull-Ups. Others require students to be trained before they begin.

2. Will my child be able to nap?

Preschool-aged kids can vary in their need for mid-day rest. Regardless of your child’s personal needs, it’s important to know exactly how the school incorporates rest into their daily schedule. A full-day preschool should incorporate a naptime into your child’s daily routine at the same time every day, and it’s best if they get one or two hours during the day to ensure naptime at school won’t interfere with their bedtime at home. Naptime, in addition to offering your child a chance to take a break during the day, can increase retention of what they learn.

3. Is my child’s behavior appropriate?

If your child interacts well with other children and generally does not mind being separated from their parents, then they will most likely thrive in a quality preschool environment. If your child struggles with separation anxiety when you leave them somewhere or they are easily overwhelmed, then the transition to preschool may be very stressful for them. This doesn’t mean they won’t be able to handle preschool, but you’ll need to address this ahead of time and anticipate some challenges during the transition.

4. How are kids disciplined/guided if needed?

Discipline in preschool should look more like guidance than punishment. A preschool teacher’s job is to redirect poor behavior and guide their students to an understanding of acceptable behavior. This will be reflected in the school and classroom rules, as well as the ways the teacher rewards or recognizes good behavior.

What Supplies Are Needed?

Knowing what school supplies are needed is important as you budget for your child’s tuition and additional school expenses. Program requirements will vary between schools, so it’s always important to ask up front. You’ll also need to know the answers to these questions:

1. Do we need to pack lunch, or will lunch be provided?

The answer to this question will vary from school to school. If the school does provide meals, ask about where the food is prepared, who prepares it and how the meal is served. If students are required to bring their lunches from home, make sure you know whether your child’s classroom is Nut-Free or otherwise restricts certain foods to address student allergies.

2. Does my child need a blanket and pillow for nap time?

Some schools provide mats for naptime, and others require students to bring in all of their napping supplies. You’ll want to find out what each school’s particular policy is, as well as whether they will take care of weekly washing of any pillows and blankets.

What Food Is Provided by the School?

Mealtime is always a big question when it comes to your child and preschool. If you are looking at a preschool that serves meals to its students each day, there are several things you’ll want to know about their menu:

1. Is it healthy and balanced?

Does the school provide a variety of healthy and age-appropriate foods for the children? Asking to see a menu is always a great way to have this question answered.

2. Do parents have a say in their child’s meals?

In other words, will the school address cultural preferences and restrictions? Do parents have a say in what menu items their child is served from day-to-day?

3. What is the school’s policy for handling food allergies?

Some preschools ban certain high-risk foods, such as peanuts, from the entire building to erase the need to monitor allergens and students. Other schools will limit these products by classroom, restricting them only when a child in the classroom has an allergy. Make sure you ask what the school’s policy is regarding food allergies and sensitivities, both for serving and preparing the food.

How Are Child-Specific Concerns Addressed?

Another way to spot a quality preschool is in the way they address child-specific concerns. What do we mean by that? Well, child-specific concerns address any health issues or issues — both mental and physical — that your child might have or develop while in their care. This is one place where the subjective nature of your decision may come into play and can play a significant role in directing how to choose the best preschool for your child:

1. Can the school handle my child’s needs?

As much as you feel comfortable sharing, outline your child’s needs and ask the director how they are equipped to handle them. For example, if your child has an allergy and has to keep an EpiPen nearby, ask where it can be kept and if the staff is trained in how to use it in an emergency. Don’t be afraid to ask what plans and procedures the school has in place to address emergency situations.

2. Does the school have a nurse?

Having someone at the school who can address acute illnesses and injuries is a huge bonus and can provide great peace of mind to parents. If a preschool doesn’t have a designated nurse on staff, find out how they handle children who become sick or hurt themselves during the school day.

What Curriculum Is in Use?

Early childhood education curriculum varies between different preschools, but a quality preschool will follow an established curriculum based on the Essential Domains of School Readiness. These include motor development and physical well-being, language and literacy development, emotional and social development, and cognition and general knowledge (basic science and math concepts).

Some schools may follow a formal curriculum, such as a Montessori program or the award-winning Frog Street Curriculum. Others may have developed their own “in-house” curriculum. Whatever the case, they should be able to articulate the basics of their curriculum and provide examples of how it meets the five domains listed above. You’ll also want to know:

1. Is it accredited?

Ask about the curriculum’s accreditations and what they mean for the school and your child.

2. What kinds of activities are involved?

A school can say they have a curriculum, but what does it involve? Make sure to ask for details about what kinds of instruction and activities your child will be involved in on a daily basis. Also, ask how the school balances their curriculum to incorporate all five of the domains of school readiness. If a school tends to emphasize one over the others, your child could miss out on some valuable experiences.

What Is the Staff’s Experience?

While degrees and certifications can vary, a good preschool teacher will have extensive knowledge about early childhood education, especially related to how children develop and grow. At the very least, they should hold a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, but many schools look for teachers with additional degrees and experience. Other questions to ask in this category when choosing the right preschool include:

1. Do the teachers have clear background checks?

Find out what screening process these teachers went through to be hired.

2. What experience do the school’s staff members have?

Are they experienced in early childhood development and education? Are they receiving ongoing training to keep their certifications and knowledge base current? Don’t be afraid to ask about their educational background, as well as their current pursuits. Trust us — a school with good teachers isn’t afraid to brag about them!

3. Do they have first aid training?

Classroom teachers should be trained and hold up-to-date certifications in first aid and CPR.

4. Are they kind?

Kindness and compassion can’t be taught, but they’re so important. All the degrees in the world can’t replace a teacher who is going to treat their students well. Take time to notice how the teachers treat you, their students and each other. You can also ask for parent references. Calling a current parent for information isn’t gossip — parent-to-parent conversations are the best way to find out what the staff is really like.

What Is the Facility Like?

The way a preschool staff cares for their facility speaks volumes about how they will care for your child:

1. Is the facility clean?

It should be clear that the preschool regularly cleans its facility, keeps itself organized and provides a visually appealing place for children to play and learn.

2. How does the school keep children safe?

A quality preschool will have security measures in place to protect their students. Make sure you ask about their security guidelines, including parental access to the building and how they screen visitors.

3. Does the facility have plenty of fun things for kids to do?

When you visit a potential preschool, look inside and outside. Do they offer a safe and fun outdoor playground? Are there lots of age-appropriate toys and books indoors? Do they hang student artwork at eye level for the students to see and explore?

What Kind of Environment Is It?

Each preschool will have a slightly different environment. As a parent, it’s your job to determine which will allow your child to thrive while they are a student there. Find out the answers to the following:

1. Are the class sizes small?

Always ask what the student-teacher ratio is at the preschool you’re visiting. Regulations vary between states — and depend on the age of the children in question — so you’ll want to make sure you know what’s legal in your state. Also, remember that the legal requirements are just a baseline for preschools to abide by. As a parent, you need to be comfortable with the ratio of students per adult in the classroom. Classes with a smaller student-teacher ratio — 1:3 or 1:4 — will provide more one-on-one guidance and instruction for each of the students enrolled.

2. Is it loud?

Yes, kids can be loud at times, and some days are better than others, but the overall volume of a school can tell you a lot about the kind of control teachers have — or don’t have — in the classroom.

What Are the Red Flags You Should Avoid?

Finding an environment where your child will thrive can depend on your child’s personality and age, as well as certain development factors. However, there are some signs of a bad preschool that shouldn’t be ignored.

1. Bad reviews

One bad review doesn’t mean a place is terrible, but it should drive you to dig deeper. As you read reviews, look at the overall trend. Are the majority of them positive? What are the complaints being discussed in the negative reviews? Also, consider the age of a review — if it was written several years ago, it’s appropriate to inquire about a change in school leadership and whether or not that has addressed the concerns you read about.

2. Dirty facilities and unsafe hazards

Beware of a facility that is visibly dirty or unsafe in any way. Don’t write off unsanitary conditions or a dangerous playspace as “no big deal.” If you wouldn’t allow those conditions in your home, never tolerate them in a school.

3. Expired license

Licensure indicates whether a preschool program is following government standards for cleanliness, safety and teacher qualifications. In the state of Virginia, licensed preschool programs are regulated under several different categories, including licensed, unlicensed but regulated, approved and unlicensed. Which category they fall under depends on who is running the program, but full-day preschool programs are typically considered “daycare programs” for licensing purposes.

In the state of Virginia, licensed preschools are required to be inspected twice a year to maintain their licensure. If a school does not hold a current state license, this may be a red flag that says something isn’t right. Besides talking with the school about its license, you can search the Virginia Department of Social Services database or call to inquire about a particular preschool’s credentials.

4. No security measures in place

A quality preschool should have a strict safety plan in place for the well-being of its students and their families. Stay away from a school that doesn’t keep exterior doors locked or doesn’t employ strict procedures for visitors and adults picking up students at any time of day.

5. Lack of official curriculum

Whether a school uses an off-the-shelf curriculum, such as Frog Street, or they have developed one in-house, it should be rooted in evidence-based practices and age-appropriate educational research. If a school cannot articulate their educational philosophy and the elements of their curriculum — or if they don’t have a formal curriculum — this may be a sign that they are not going to provide the quality preschool education you’re looking for.

Quick Checklist of Questions to Ask Preschools

In general, to inform your conversations and inspire your search for a quality preschool for your child, always remember to ask:

1. Is my child ready?

2. What supplies will my child need?

3. What will mealtime and naptime look like?

4. Is the school equipped to handle my child’s specific needs?

5. What curriculum is being used?

6. What are the qualifications of the staff?

7. What vibe do I get from the facility and the overall environment of this preschool?

Consider Haymarket Children’s Academy

Located in Gainesville, VA, Haymarket Children’s Academy is committed to providing personalized and purposeful instruction for three and four-year-olds. Our award-winning curriculum is designed to prepare your child for a lifetime of discovery and learning, in the classroom setting and beyond. Going above and beyond traditional expectations, we offer our students and their families a safe, nurturing environment, as well as meals prepared by an in-house chef, an extensive outdoor play area and access to an on-site nurse.

Contact us today to schedule a tour of HCA.

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