Head of School Blog

Playing to Learn

Jill Singleton
“I hear more and more from teachers that parents are in a state of panic over academic preparedness,” Alison Gropnik, author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Gropnik has also spent a great deal of time researching the importance of play. Her findings, in layman’s terms shared in an interview published in the Teaching Young Children journal, reinforce what teachers of young children have known for a long time: “Play is not just some touchy-feely activity…There’s hard evidence that children learn more things through play than they would in some academic setting.” Gropnik further contends that play not only facilitates children’s learning about the world and how things work, but evidence shows that “this kind of understanding leads to social adjustment in school and social competence in life.”

So, what exactly are children learning when they play? Walking through the classrooms at the St.Nicholas Center right before Thanksgiving break, I was struck by the fact that every classroom had transformed their Dramatic Play Center into a grocery store. With the Thanksgiving holiday just around the corner, it’s only natural that children were interested in exploring food-related ideas in their play. What intrigued me most was the fact that each classroom took the center in a slightly different direction, allowing for the different developmental needs and stages of the children. I asked the teachers to share a little with me about the Center, and I thought I’d share some excerpts with you here.

The Nursery Classroom
During the first week of November, children were delighted to find aprons, reusable shopping bags, a cash register, play money, and shopping baskets in the Dramatic Play Center. Students naturally took on different roles in their play – customer, cashier, produce manager, etc., and took turns in the different roles. While “shopping” in the grocery store, children discussed the different food items with each other. Some pretended to be their parents when they are in the grocery store. In the ensuing days and weeks, grocery store circulars, coupon books, and empty food boxes and containers were added to the Center, leading the play into new territory. Once their grocery store was well established, students delighted in painting a large sign together to welcome “shoppers” to their grocery store. Clean up time supported even more learning, as students practice their sorting skills by putting the various foods away by type (i.e. vegetables into the vegetable basket, fruit in the fruit basket, etc.). Finally, the learning really came to life when the class took a field trip to the A&P. Students prepared by thinking about what they might see while there, and made a list together. Upon returning from the store, students circled what they saw on their list and added new items to the list.

The Pre-K Classroom
In Pre-K, students were thrilled to explore a supermarket in their Dramatic Play Center and learned a variety of important skills while doing so. Lessons learned in their Health and Science curriculum influenced the play in the supermarket, where students placed an emphasis on healthy food. When Pre-K took a trip to Shop Rite, it was precisely this topic that dominated their observations – they looked for healthy and unhealthy foods throughout the store. Back in the classroom, students used their artistic and fine motor skills to create a supermarket sign at the Art Table. Each day, they used their burgeoning writing skills to write their names on their own personal nameplates, just like the workers at Shop Rite. As with their Nursery friends, sorting and labeling skills were used when setting up the different areas in their supermarket. All delighted in putting their developing math skills to good use when using their cash register to exchange money for items on the shelves. Social language development was an integral part of the dramatic play experience, as students experimented with dressing up and pretending to be parents, shoppers, cashiers, and stockers. Social skills and a broader understanding of different family structures also came out of the play, as children explored and role played the many different kinds of family structures that make up our community – single parent families, families with two mommies or two daddies, families where a grandparent is the primary caregiver. Finally, the personal interaction that happened in the supermarket reinforced important social kills such as sharing, turn taking, speaking, and listening.

The Kindergarten Classroom
Like their younger peers in Nursery and Pre-K, students in Kindergarten enjoyed being shoppers, cashiers, and shelf stockers. However, in Kindergarten, students took more responsibility for the planning of the center and explored their expanding interests in different types of foods. For example, Kindergarten South created a sushi bar and fruit stand, and Kindergarten North made a lobster cage and pretend aisles on their bulletin board. The students incorporated learned skills in Math such as sorting, counting, and number writing, and priced the different foods, providing teachers with the opportunity to introduce money and symbols such as the cent sign, dollar sign, and decimal point – a wonderful introduction to math skills that will be covered later in the year. Students also incorporated what they learned in Health class, dividing the food into the five food groups (dairy, grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats) and searching for foods in each group on their visit to the A&P. In Kindergarten North, students even incorporated what they know about online shopping by creating their own version of Fresh Direct, with their customers placing orders online to be delivered to their homes – a real sign that technology is changing the lives of our students. Teachers even overheard a student in Kindergarten North asking a customer in the store if they would like to donate a dollar to the food bank upon check out!

For more information about the role of play in learning, visit the National Association for the Education of Young Children website: http://www.naeyc.org/play, and to read the full interview with Dr. Gropnik: http://www.naeyc.org/files/tyc/file/TYC_V3N2_Gopnik.pdf
Questions, comments, thoughts? I’d love to hear them! Email me jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com