George Lucas Educational Foundation
New Teachers

3 Simple Steps to Nurture Learning During Play

Interacting with preschoolers as they engage in play can help support skill development that will sustain them throughout their educational journey.

July 7, 2022
Pre-school students do activity in a small group
SolStock / iStock

Educators know the importance of play for young children. Play can be filled with problem-solving, social learning, and delightful discovery experiences. During play, children seek repetition and familiarity, as they hone skills with familiar objects. They develop fine motor skills as they use race cars on the rug and strengthen language skills as they talk about making a pretend meal for their stuffed animals. It’s also a time of exploration, when children try new ways of using objects or thinking about concepts.

Observing and interacting with children while they play is one way to support their growth and development during the school day. And playing together can be fun. New teachers may know that being in close proximity and sharing children’s enjoyment can be an effective way to build trusting relationships, but what teacher moves are most effective? By having natural conversations, during which children have space to ask questions and share their thoughts, you support their developing language and critical thinking skills.

In this more individualized setting, you also help children build their knowledge of the world based on their interests and backgrounds. To be honest, just about every aspect of child development can be supported through play. In fact, recent research indicates that guided play can be even more powerful than direct instruction in teaching skills.

Take a Pause Before Joining Students’ Play

With so many possibilities, you might be motivated to jump in and join children’s play the moment they start. However, this can overwhelm children, and you risk disengagement. Therefore, it’s necessary to consider how you join in a child’s activity. To be an effective facilitator, you’ll want to join in play in a respectful way that adds value to a child’s experience. Being consistent in your approach helps children to know what to expect. Additionally, children need opportunities to think and talk. Being an active listener provides you with information on their interests, skills, and strengths. You can use this information to further create more responsive environments and activities to support each child’s unique needs.

The next time you join a child during playtime, make your interaction a “WIN”: Watch. Invite. Name. By following these three steps, you can enhance your involvement with children during play and help it to become more meaningful.

WIN: A 3-Step Process

1. Watch: As you join children in their play space, take time to observe them. Notice what materials children use, what words or gestures they make, and how they work. During this time, you are a researcher gathering evidence about children’s unique world of play. Try to stay neutral as you observe, noting only what you see and what you hear. Refrain from making assumptions or judgments about children’s motivations or skills. You might be thinking to yourself, “I notice Jana lining up dolls in a row. She is talking about getting them ready to go to bed. I wonder if she is borrowing this routine from home.”

2. Invite: This second step, invite, is key to how you confer with a child during play. Invite the child to talk first to get a glimpse into their thinking and ideas. Start with phrases such as, “What did you choose to do today?” “What will you do with…,” or “Tell me about …”

Be sure to use nonverbal gestures such as nodding or smiling to show your interest in their responses as well. Over time, children will look forward to your interest in their play and come to expect conversation around it.

3. Name: Once a child has shared their ideas with you, validate their thinking by naming what they said. This helps the child feel seen and heard. Make this step even more powerful by restating what you heard using more advanced language and vocabulary to build the child’s language skills. For example, if a child tells you they are building a house with their blocks, you might respond by saying, “So you are building, or constructing, a house. I see it’s very tall. It has 1-2-3-4 floors. What else are you planning to build around, or beside the house?”

Additionally, if the opportunity arises, nudge the child’s thinking by expanding on the content of their play. For example, you might introduce a related object into the play or adopt a role in their pretend play scenario. For example, if a child tells you they are making a ramp to roll a ball down, you might respond by gathering a few different types of balls (tennis, ping-pong, rubber) and saying, “You are building a ramp to roll this ball down. We have lots of different types of balls in our classroom. I wonder if you might like to try rolling these down your ramp. I wonder if they will all roll at the same speed.”

A balance of observation and conversation is embedded in this structure, and it’s intended to nurture and extend a child’s engagement in their play. Remember to keep the focus on the child and their experiences. Once you have contributed, allow the play to unfold once again.

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  • Play & Recess
  • Student Engagement
  • Pre-K

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