Ask the Childcare Expert – Tammy Cole


The Importance of Play in the Early Years

Most adults believe that the crucial skills children need to be successful in school include knowing the alphabet, naming colors, writing their name, and counting. However, most kindergarten teachers would disagree and will tell you it’s the social-emotional skills that children learn in child care that are most needed for school success. Proper social-emotional skill development is vital to a child’s success at school. Unfortunately more and more children are entering school without these critical skills.

Teachers report that it is difficult to teach children who are not interested in learning, lack confidence in their own abilities, and have trouble cooperating and controlling themselves. Intellectual skills are less of a problem because they are more easily solved. To succeed in school children need a sense of personal well-being that is created from stable, caring relationships at home and in child care in the early years.

How do we fix this problem? It starts with play! Many adults are mistaken about play and often view “playing” as a frivolous activity meant to fill waiting periods between more important activities. Play is far more than just a way to fill children’s free time. Play is a child’s context for learning and the single most important way children explore, learn about the world, and practice and perfect new skills. Children practice and reinforce their learning in multiple areas during play. It gives them a place and time for learning that cannot be achieved through completing a worksheet.

When children play, they get to decide what materials to use, what to do and when to stop or change to a different activity. Children playing in a quality child care setting are testing out new materials, trying out roles, experimenting with cause and effect, making guesses and testing conclusions and practicing getting along with others. Researchers have shown that high-quality play experiences help improve children’s memory, social skills, oral language abilities, pre-reading and pre-math skills and school adjustment. All of these will be crucially important learning skills when children get to kindergarten and beyond.

Child care providers play a crucial role in preparing young children for school, socially as well as intellectually. Studies of school achievement have consistently shown that high quality child care can get children off to the right start. Through enhanced play experiences, child care providers help children develop the following social and emotional skills that are essential to school readiness:

  • Ability to follow directions
  • Ability to focus attention
  • Ability to take turns
  • Ability to control themselves
  • Ability to solve problems with words rather than through
  • Ability to work independently
  • Ability to work with in a group
  • Age-appropriate social-skills and ability to make friends
  • Skills communicating with other children
  • Skills communicating with adults

Children learn crucial social and emotional skills when they have to solve problems that arise in play with others. With the guidance and support of qualified child care providers, children can face these problems and learn the skills needed to be successful in school and in life.