Teaching children in the early years is a challenge and an opportunity. it can be one of the most rewarding teaching jobs, as very young children experience enormous learning curves. This leap in learning is made possible by allowing children to do something that comes naturally to them – playing with sand, water, and blocks. By setting up an environment in which children manipulate, explore, and experiment with a variety of new materials, the teacher provides them with tools for learning.
The play-based classroom
In a well-planned and adequately equipped play-based setting, children have access to a wide range of learning materials. They can move freely through centres and explore activities that interest them. The class timetable is set up to have at least 60 minutes available for free play each day. Activities are organized so that they are open ended and change over time as children’s skills and interests develop. Different children may take an interest in a centre when its focus changes.
The sand and water tables allow children the opportunity to explore the properties of these materials: how does sand change when water is added, how does water flow through a thin tube or a fat tube? The play changes as props are added or removed. When the water wheel is put away and sea creatures are added to the water centre, the focus changes, sometimes from science to an imaginative narrative; similarly, the children’s vocabulary changes while they are at play.
In the home centre, children act out what they know about family life as they experiment with roles and add to the play by using their imagination. They learn to create narratives, to understand role perspectives, and to develop empathy for characters in their play. In the block centre, children learn proportional reasoning and spatial perspectives as they build towers and towns, and create objects that are significant to them. They develop their vocabulary and grammar as they use oral language skills and share stories; friendships and social skills as they work together and share materials, and foundational skills for mathematics development as they construct. When relevant books and writing materials are added, children have the opportunity to demonstrate their independent knowledge and application of letters and words.
Early childhood is a time when children combine their imaginations and fantasies with personal experiences to think above and beyond normal activities, use their creativity, and strengthen their memory. They demonstrate their personal knowledge and their ability to make sense of the world. As they interact with others, they experience fresh new perspectives and perceive new meanings, and merge these with a background of familiar experiences.
Oral communication is a critical component of play. Children will use and hear others use descriptive and specific vocabulary,