The Case for Putting Play first in Preschool

By on December 10, 2015

As a preschool educator, I often have to resist the urge to teach in my classroom which may sound surprising given my role. But, the longer I am in the classroom and the more we understand how we best learn, the more I have trained myself to step aside. We are, at our very core, extremely curious beings and more often than not, our own best teachers.

Play is a precursor to learning and where the opportunities are there for the learning to take place; however, it is the children who help make the learning happen and be successful. Success is not only in the learning itself but play is an enabler for reducing stress, improving self-regulation and – most importantly – in developing social skills. These “softer skills” are the ones that are required in the workplace, to thrive but also to become compassionate leaders.


This is not to say that a 4-year old takes full responsibility for the learning process and does it all on his or her own. Rather, a teacher plays the critical role in facilitating the learning process. After all, curiosity leads us to explore the world and seek out the things that we are most interested in – particularly children whose brains are developing and extremely elastic. And at this stage of development, we learn through experience: sensory, emotional, motor and intellectual. And, accordingly, our brain is hard wired to create these experiences through touch, language, movement and collaboration. Our innate need is to engage with the environment; to see how things work; to observe how people react to our responses and behaviour; to use our imagination and creativity, in order to create a sense of understanding of the world.

That’s why young children have a hard time sitting at a desk for very long periods of time, or why sitting in a lecture is trying. Children, and I would argue, adults as well , innately want to seek out and create their own experiences in accordance with the brain’s natural way of learning. An experienced teacher is a critical facilitator of this process, guiding children to think through a project, helping them to see new ways of doing things and encouraging them to follow their instincts.


Last year we did a project on “Our neighbourhood” inspired by seeing the man who owns the glass factory near the park, standing outside, when we were walking back to school one day. Of course the children were curious and when we asked them if they wanted to visit the factory, their answer was a big “YES”. This then led us to arrange visits to a number of places in our neighbourhood and do an extensive project on it. We had discussions on a daily basis about what we were doing, what we needed to do, what we wanted to do etc. We not only did hands-on research, by looking at the neighbourhood and the buildings, but we also looked in books to see if there was “provocation” for further investigation. We collaborated in deciding how we could make our own small neighbourhood in the classroom. The suggestions were with Lego, junk art and on paper. We set about building the neighbourhood with Lego first and then we used junk art materials to create our own 3D one. We chatted while making our Junk art neighbourhood and the buildings were those chosen by the children e.g. a hotel (even though there isn’t one really close).


KEZ_0659_ohana-250x300Shelley Sacks, the Director of Ohana International School was born in Cape Town, South Africa and studied Early Childhood Education at Barkly House Teachers Training College, which specialized in training teachers for pre-school and kindergarten children. At an early stage in her teaching career, she was awarded a scholarship by the Department of Education in Cape Town and received a Post Graduate diploma in Special Needs. In 2010, Shelley co-founded Ohana International School with Darren Winney, both experienced educators with combined 60 years of teaching experience. Ohana International School is an English language pre-school in Moto-Azabu for children aged 15 months to 5 years old.



About Shelley Sacks