Learning Through Play and Preschool Activities: Interview with Jan Z. Olsen

by Carla on January 13, 2010

Children learn through both direct and indirect play. Child day care providers can take advantage of opportunities for social and emotional learning through play activities.

In our interview with expert Jan Z. Olsen, OTR, co-creator of The Get Set for School™ readiness program and founder and creator of Handwriting Without Tears®, explains the importance of learning through play.

OwnADaycare: What is the importance of learning through play?

Olsen: Children are naturally curious, active, and eager to learn and try new things.  To keep them that way, preschoolers need a readiness curriculum that encourages “playful learning.”   A strong preschool curriculum builds learning opportunities directly into  play so that learning keeps pace with the growing child.

  • Singing, with movement: Develops memory and language, social participation and imitation, rhythm, rhyme and body awareness
  • Playing  encourages social skills, such as cooperation, taking turns and following instructions
  • Hands on Letter Play: Builds pre-writing skill. The teacher shows how to make letters with dough, wood pieces, or magnetic stamps. They learn letters (and numbers) in multi-sensory active play.
  • Coloring  and Drawing : Small crayons  help children develop a good pencil grip and developmentally appropriate pages make for easy coloring and drawing. Building people and simple shapes with wood pieces leads naturally to drawing success. .

OwnADaycare: How does play lead to real life learning in the area of social and emotional learning? What are some examples of play-based activities in this area?

Olsen: Social and emotional skills are essential for school success and personal well being. We use play-based activities to promote not just cognitive learning, but emotional and social learning. Here are three examples:

“Show and Tell.” can be as scary for children as public speaking is for adults.  Instead of that, we use a play-based song activity to develop social confidence. All the child has to do is take a toy animal from a basket and hold it. The teacher leads a song about counting legs and the child turns the animal to show “two legs in the front, two legs in the back.…”  The children like choosing animals for the song. They naturally develop poise in front of a group, so they’ll be ready for “Show and Tell.”

Another example is polishing wood pieces. Children sit together on the floor to polish, four basic wood pieces. As they do this activity, they naturally learn to talk, trade, pass, and share.

A favorite group activity is building the Mat Man™ character on the floor. Each child has one of Mat Man’s body parts. The teacher leads the Mat Man song and as each part is named, the child with that part places it. Children learn how to pay attention, wait and to take a turn. At the same time, they learn the social value of working together and belonging to a group.

Learning to take turns, following directions, and activities that teach interaction with others are important for the overall social and emotional growth of young children and can easily be incorporated into play.  Involving children in a group activity, such as collaborating to put together the Mat Man™ character, will help teach body awareness, counting and sequencing.  Sharing the pieces to build things can help children learn these important social and emotional lessons.

OwnADaycare: How does play lead to real life learning in the area of language and literacy development? What are some examples of play activities preschool teachers can offer in this area?

Olsen: Play can bolster language and literacy in two ways.  The first way is simply having a language rich environment so that play includes lots of talking, reading and singing.

The second, but very effective was to boost literacy is to use consistent language for teaching. Take playing with wood pieces as an example.  We always use the same names for wood pieces: big line or little line, big curve or little curve. So how do we build capital D? With one big line, and one big curve! How do we make capital B? With one big line and two little curves.

Consistent language means that teachers use the same words that children know. It makes it easy for children to understand the teacher and follow directions. In addition to size and shape words, we also teach position words through play.  Children imitate the teacher to put wood pieces up and down, under and over, in and out, in front or in back.  It’s fun to move the pieces and while the children play, they learn important position words, the prepositions – which are tricky for some children.

Another play activity to boost literacy is “play reading” on the back of letter cards. Children match letters or pictures on cards in a top to bottom, left to right order, just as if they’re reading the card. We use songs and movement to encourage children to get in the habit of going from top to bottom and left to right, a foundation skill for both reading and writing.

Other studies have shown that children who draw often, write better.  A hands-on, playful approach to learning—at home or in school—is the natural and easy way to develop pencil grip, focus, posture, and other skills necessary for good handwriting. Activities such as building letters with wood pieces, forming letters out of dough with Roll-A-Dough Letters™, and singing songs about letters and sequencing introduces children to important concepts in fun ways.

Part 2 of this interview can be found here.

About Carla

Carla Snuggs has written 88 post in this blog.

Carla is a freelance writer from Southern California. She has a B.A. in early childhood education and a Master of Library and Information Science degree specializing in public librarianship and youth services.

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