Children's Brains are Wired for Learning Through Hands on Play

When a child is engaged in play, their mind and brain is fully engaged, active and alert. A child’s mind is involved in creating, inventing, and self-initiating all activity when in play. Given these characteristics, play is really the highest and utmost of all levels of learning that we want to cultivate in our children. 

 Play is self-directed and initiated which creates independent and intrinsic learners. Children need opportunities to direct their own activities and learning. They need ample time to make mistakes and experiencing things falling apart in order to learn how to problem solve. Play is intrinsically motivated which correlates to how we wish for our children to learn, for the love of learning, rather than the outcome of only good grades. 

 Play is not a passive activity but involves active participation. It is a team sport of developing continual dialogue, interaction, problem solving, and negotiation. Children are learning how to make decisions. It involves creativity, invention and vision. They learn to use every day materials in new and useful way to invent something that will represent a mental image they hold in their minds. This skill is directly related to the same one that is needed for reasoning and working with abstract symbols. 

 As children experience an environment in which they are active participants, they become fully engaged and stimulated in what they are doing. Their brains are fully stimulated in so many levels and their language and thinking begin developing in more sophisticated and complex ways. Their sustained attention in engaging in what they are doing over time, again and again, naturally spills out to developing longer attention spans in other learning activities as well.

 Children must plan, organize and sequence ideas and create problem solving scenarios in play situations. Higher level language, literacy and communication skills begin developing with repeated exposure to open ended play encounters with others. Children begin to learn that others have feeling and perspectives different from their own and this develops into higher social skills and understanding of how to navigate interpersonal relationships. 

 As children build from simple to more complex structures with blocks, they are learning early math skills of length, order, number, area, and weight. They are able to experiment with cause and effect, size and quantity when they discover new and creative ways to build structures, cities, or homes with blocks. They are learning higher level thinking skills of proportion and probability as they learn to use different shape and sized blocks to create a mental representation they hold in their minds.   

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The Importance of Play in Young Children's Learning

 I have often wondered what would happen if the teachers who can see what is happening would stand up and protest, not individually, but together, as a united force. I was fascinated, therefore, to read this past June about the united stand taken that month by kindergarten teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts. Twenty-seven of the 34 public school kindergarten teachers in Brookline signed a letter that they read aloud at a meeting of the Brookline School Committee. 

 Here, in part, is what the letter said  "We have dedicated our careers to teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, and we see that some current practices are leaving an everlasting negative impact on our students’ social-emotional well- being. Therefore, we are here tonight to share with you our concerns about a new kind of gap that is emerging in Brookline Kindergarten. It is a "reality gap"—a gap between the way research shows that young children learn best and the curriculum the district requires us to teach. It is a reality gap between Brookline educational values and what is actually happening to children in our classrooms.

“We have all worked with our literacy coaches and specialists to implement the various reading and writing lessons with fidelity. However, block scheduling—90-minute reading and writing blocks—comes at the expense of thematic units, play-based learning, and social-emotional opportunities. “We are seeing the effects of this loss. We see many of our Kindergartners struggle with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read. … It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, "I don’t know how to read, I hate reading, I hate school, I am not good at anything." 

This is our greatest concern. “Current academic pressures on 5- and 6-year-olds are contributing to increasing challenges with our kindergartners ability to self-regulate, to be independent and creative. …

Study after study has shown that young children need time to play, but in Brookline, because of academic demands, time for play-based learning has been shortened and, on some days, eliminated entirely. As Kindergarten teachers know,   play is not frivolous; it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function, which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions. It helps children learn to persevere, increase attention and navigate emotions.

 “Young children are also meant to move around and explore. Many children who sit for long periods of time experience frustration, muscle cramps, and disruptive behaviors. We have seen an increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD and behavior issues within our schools and we know why this is happening. Yet, we are doing things that will only exacerbate the problem rather than make it better.

 “We are not advancing equity. As mentioned with play and social-emotional development, the district is asking us to teach our children in ways that reduce equity in the classroom. We are told that everything has to be the same. Please think about what ‘the same’ means. It is not uniquely tailored to maximize the joy and learning for every single child. Standardization is not equity.

 “Where once teachers were trusted to use their judgment and teach to the needs of each unique class, now we are directed to follow set curricula from textbooks. We are being given directives, not empowerment for our students. “Let’s envision our children being excited to come to school each day, developing a deep love of learning, having confidence in their abilities as learners, strengthening social-emotional skills, creating deep relationships with peers and teachers, and being part of a community of learners. Imagine a classroom where teachers are spending time working directly with students, forming trusting relationships, and engaging in meaningful teaching experiences that address students’ needs as a whole.

 Children  learn best through play and real experiences that allow them to explore and make connections, build some background knowledge, and develop problem solving skills. The play can be purposeful (teacher guided), but there also needs to be time for children to explore freely without teacher direction. This is essential in the development of curiosity, and the ability to follow an idea or a project through. This is the bedrock of developmentally appropriate practice. In fact, it is the bedrock of lifelong learning .   a place where children explore relationships with others in order to develop a sense of empathy. It can be a place where they master amicable and respectful dialogue with their peers. It can be a place where they learn how to justify their own ideas and solve problems. Imagine a classroom where children learn how to fail, so they can try again and find their way. “We ask you to envision with us a future in which our children are deeply engaged in fun, integrated content areas. Envision with us classrooms where learning to read is fun, purposeful engaging and organic. 

Imagine a future where love of learning, not test-based performance, returns to the heart of our children’s very first educational experiences.” 

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Benefits of Playdough

 Squish, smash, twist, turn…mess. 

 We have all had experiences with playdough, whether in our own childhood or with our own children. But outside of simple messy play, what exactly is playdough good for?While some may find this surprising, play dough has a wide array of developmental, learning, and sensory benefits for kids. This is why playdough is a staple in almost every early childhood classroom. Its versatility makes playdough one of those items that should be a part of every childhood. 

 What Playdough Teaches Kids 

Fine Motor Skills: This helps in your children’s hands develop the strength, dexterity, and control needed to manipulate everyday items such as scissors, pencils, zippers, and buttons. 

 Socioemotional Skills: Playdough provides a lot of open-ended opportunities for children to experience independent and cooperative play. In both styles of play, children are exploring abilities, life experiences, and emotions. During play with others (either an adult or child) children are learning about cooperation, collaboration, self-control, and friendships.

 Creativity: From dramatic play to initiating and creating whatever your child’s imagination can come up with, playdough is a fantastic outlet. Playdough can be anything! 

 Language and Literacy: As children discuss what they are creating or their sensory experiences they are expanding their vocabulary. As you ask your child questions they are learning to listen. There are so many different ways children learn comprehension, listening, and communication skills through playing with playdough.

 Science and Math: Trial and error, creating shapes, comparing sizes – just simply playing with playdough exposes kids to a vast array of math and science concepts. 

 Sensory Benefits of Play Dough 

Hand Strengthening: Squishing, smashing, pushing, pulling, twisting, cutting…all the fun of playdough. Just the basic act of playing with playdough builds those hands muscles. Playdough also comes in a variety of different consistencies some of which require more strength than others to manipulate making it fairly easy to meet individual needs. 

 Proprioceptive: Pushing in cookie cutters or toys, pulling back a rolling pin, or even just squeezing a very stiff dough all provide deep pressure input for your child’s joints. 

 Sensorimotor: Ever just sit there and squeeze/roll around a ball of play dough in your hands while your child sat there and played? A lot like a stress ball, play dough is a stress reliever. And this works for your kids too! 

 Tactile: Everything about playdough at the most basic level is about exploring using the tactile sensory system. From textures to consistencies, to toys and items used, playdough is all about hands-on exploration. 

 Olfactory: Adding scents to playdough is ridiculously easy and one of our favorite things to do! For some simple ideas check out the links below.These are a Few of 

Our Favorite Play Dough Toys 


Cookie Cutters

 Tooth Picks




Kids Silverware 

Wine Corks



Pine Cones


Googly Eyes 

Bottle Tops 

Garlic Masher 

Plastic Animals 

Mr. Potato Head Pieces 


Pipe Cleaners


Rolling Pin 

Melon Baller

 Matchbox Cars

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Block Center

 This year, my preschool students were SO into block play! Every year I have children who adore playing in our building center, but this year’s kiddos went above and beyond. 

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Our Fun Literacy Center to Reinforce Letters


Make learning about letters, sounds, sight words, and names FUN and engaging  with fun games like this jelly matching game.

Fun, hands on games are the best way  to help children develop various literacy skills including letter identification, beginning sounds/initial sounds, his/her name, sight words, and various concepts of print!  

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Using Props for Music

I always bring Props to our circle and music times to help engage the children in what we are learning.  Below are just a few examples of some things I use...

 Number Cards

 I made numbers on the die-cut machine, glued them to white construction paper and laminated them. We use these with “The Number Game” by Greg & Steve. During the Number Game song, I pass out the cards to all of the kids. If I have 20 kids, there will be four #1’s, four #2’s, four #3’s, and so on. Each child has one number card. When each number is called out in the song, the children who are holding that number stand up and they can dance however they want to.number cards 

 Big Foam Letters 

These are from Lakeshore. We use them with Dr. Jean’s “Who Let the Letters Out” and Jack Hartmann’s “Animal Alphabet Cheer”.big lettersColor


 I made these by cutting sheets of felt in half and hot-gluing them to dowel rods. We use them for “Rainbow of Colors” by Greg & Steve and Jack Hartmann’s “Colors All Around”. The color flags are essential because our kids wear uniforms (I can’t have them stand up if they’re wearing certain colors).color flags 

 Spider Rings 

We use these for “There’s a Spider on the Floor” by Raffi.spider rings 

 Money Cups 

I put one of each coin in a clear plastic punch cup for use with money songs. I store the cups stacked and they don’t take up much space. The kids enjoy Jack Hartmann’s “Show Me the Money”.money cups 

 Bean Bags 

We use the “Bean Bag Boogie” songs from Kids in Motion by Greg & Steve and “Bean Bag Fun” by Kimbo.bean bags 


I play clips of music with varying tempos for the children to do creative movement with the scarves. I sometimes use classical music, but the children also enjoy it when I put on Disney music.Some examples of Disney music tempos:SOFT AND SLOW: A Whole New World (Aladdin), Candle on the Water (Pete’s Dragon), When You Wish Upon a Star, Someday My Prince Will Come, Once Upon a Dream (Sleeping Beauty), God Help the Outcasts (Hunchback of Notre Dame), Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas) .FAST AND UPBEAT: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat (Aristocats), I Wanna Be Like You (Jungle Book), Mickey Mouse Club March, It’s a Small World, Bare Necessities (Jungle Book), Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Under the Sea (Little Mermaid), Hakuna Matata (Lion King).We also use Musical Scarves & Activities by Kimbo.musical scarves 

 Rhythm Instruments

 I sometimes use a purchased set of rhythm band instruments, and sometimes use class sets of homemade instruments. Kimbo has a lot of great CD’s to use with instruments and bean bags. You can also use classical music and authentic international music (see Creative Diversity and Putumayo World Music for Kids). 

Rhythm Sticks 

These can be bought or made by spray painting dowel rods. We use Kimbo’s CDs “Multicultural Rhythm Stick Fun” and “Simplified Rhythm Stick Activities”.rhythm sticks 

 Egg Shakers 

These are plastic Easter eggs filled with rice and hot-glued shut. They are great for “La Cucaracha” and Raffi’s “Let’s Make Some Noise”. I bought those songs from iTunes for $0.99.egg shakers 


These are craft store jingle bells strung on a pipe cleaner. I bent the pipe cleaners in a hoop and twisted the ends together. I’ve also seen these made with the metal rings from the office supply store.bells 


I had originally made my own set of castanets. These are made with rectangles of poster board folded over into a square. The square is about 2 1/2 inches. The inside has a button hot-glued on each side that tap together when the children squeeze the castanet closed. I later found some wooden castanets at Target’s dollar spot, and purchased a class set. Flamenco music is perfect for these, but other songs can be used.castanets 


Make a drum for each child using peanut cans, drink mix cans, or mini Pringles cans. Decorate the outside and either drum on them with your hands, or use unsharpened pencils or dowel rods for drumsticks.drums 

 Plate Drums

 Some years I don’t have enough cans available for a class set, so we make drums with sturdy disposable plates (Chinet works great). The children paint the bottom of the plate. To use this, we set the plates on the floor upside down, and drum on the bottom of the plate with our hands.plate drum

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Using Everyday Materials as Learning Tools

I love to use every day materials in our preschool classroom.   You can do the same at home.  Here is a small list of every day things you can find in your home or in a dollar store and use as learning tools.

Steel or Aluminum stove burner covers-  I use these as magnetic boards for magnetic letter activities or as a write and wipe board f0or the children to write with dry erase markers and practice letters and numbers or simply to draw.

Pool Noodles-I cut these in 1-2 inch pieces and add a slit down the middle to insert a popsicle stick to create traffic signs for the block area.   They also make great card holders to post letters or songs on during our morning meeting where we sing new songs and literacy activities. 

 Drop Clothes  -can be used as an art easel.  I have art easels, but love to tape these to the wall and then tape paper on them to paint.

Junk Mail-I save all of my junk mail to use the envelopes to use in our Preschool Post Office for the children to write and pretend to send to friends.   We use the junk mail for fun literacy activities of finding letters .  I will ask the children to  circle all of the C's for example.  There are great stickers in some junk mail that we reuse to decorate our art projects or to our Post Office to send out letters.  These junk papers make for great papers for cutting practice as well.

Musical Shakers-I have the children help me find and fill different containters such as water bottles,  cardboard tubes with beans, rice, salt, and even pebbles to create shakers we use for music.  When the children are involved  in creating our materials they are more invested, treasure ,  tend to respect and love the materials even more and take ownership for their care.  Oatmeal containers,  butter tubs  and  coffee cans make great musical drums.

Water Bottles- cut the middle out and it creates a great funnel and cup for water or sand play. Tape the part you cut for sharp edges.

Straws, popsicle sticks-  I place these in my block center and the children create with them making roads or adding to a block structure.  They make amazing tools for our playdough creating.

  Bottle Caps- I use them as counters for math,  sorting with them,  as part of the materials to create in our playdough,  cover with colored tape and use as game pieces.

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Block Center Ideas

 Add Straws to the Block CenterBlock accessories can be expensive. But a trip to the dollar store or grocery store can yield materials to supplement your block center at little cost.

 One day in the grocery store, I saw packets of neon straws. I tossed a pack into my cart and took them to my classroom. I didn't have a plan for the straws. I thought my great thinkers in the classroom could figure something out.I put the straws in the blocks center. My group likes to build and I want to give them some different things to work with. We were talking about wells, so I also added a couple of small buckets with yarn attached. (In the past, kids have built wells and pretended to scoop out water.)A couple of boys decided to use the straws as "water." 

They stuffed the straws into the buckets and transported them across the center. They dumped the "water" onto the picture of the well, I think to fill it up. The boys worked at this for a while.Meanwhile, in another part of the center, one of my builders was at work creating a large structure.After the others left, the builder completed his building and began to scoop and play with the straws.Then he decided to incorporate the straws in his structure.I love how each straw is strategically placed. He worked really hard to find just the right spot for each one. 

 Sometimes I'll put things out and they will be ignored. Sometimes the kids do things that I expect. And sometimes I get a block structure filled with straws. And if I put these same materials out with a different group of kids, I'll get a different result.Repurposing and recycling materials for the classroom is great for the budget. It's great for creative thinking. And it's just fun!

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Reading Skills

 The five main components of reading are: 

Phonemic Awareness





Phonemic awareness impacts meaningful reading, and thus it is critical for students to develop this skill. When a student is able to understand that the word 'cat' has three sounds, or phonemes, /k/ /a/ /t/, they've demonstrated their phonemic awareness.

 Phonemes are written down as graphemes. Graphemes may be single letters (a, t, k, e, or n) or clusters of letters that represent single sounds (th, sh, oo, ough, or ck). 

Phonemes include all the sounds in a language that can be represented by letters. 

 Some skills involved in phonemic awareness include:

 Identifying specific sounds at the beginning, middle, and end of words.For example, what is the first sound in the word “Table” 

 Blending sounds For example, joining /s/ and /it/ to form sit 

 Making a new word by adding a phoneme to a word. For example, deriving what work is created when adding /s/ to the word “and”

Learning about phonics can help students read and spell easily and accurately. It involves recognizing letter-sound relationships and using those relationships to read connected text.An example of Phonics is learning about the various letter combinations that can be used for the sound /k/.

Fluency is the accurate and rapid recognition of words in a text and using phrasing and emphasis in a way that makes what is read sound like spoken language.Fluency is important for reading comprehension, because it frees up working memory in the brain, providing an opportunity for students to comprehend what they are reading. 

Vocabulary refers to the words that we use in reading, writing, listening and speaking. A good vocabulary helps ease word recognition, and thus makes reading easier. 

Comprehension is the final goal of reading. This involves being able to connect what has been read to what the reader knows, constructing meaning that is reasonable and accurate, and contemplating this information until the meaning is understood.

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Language Development


 To understand how to build pre-reading experience in children, it is important to understand the various stages of language development. In this way, teachers and parents are able to best provide children with appropriate stimulating activities. 

The following chart presents an overview of alignment between a child’s age and observable language-related activities. 

 Birthto1 year

Vocalizing with intonation

Responding to his/her name

Responding when spoken to

Moving eyes in direction of sounds

Responding to changes in tone of your voice

Noticing toys that make sounds

Using one or more words with meaning (this may be a fragment of a word

)Understanding simple instructions, especially if vocal or physical cues are given

Practicing inflection

Being aware of the social value of speechHaving one or two words (hi, dog, dada, mama) around first birthday, although sounds may not be clear

Recognizing words for common items like "cup", "shoe", "book", or "juice"

Beginning to respond to requests (e.g. "Come here" or "Want more?")

Babbling with both long and short groups of sounds

Using speech or non-crying sounds to get and keep attention

Using gestures tp communicate (waving, holding arms to be picked up

)Imitating different speech sounds

Enjoying games like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake

Turning and looking in the direction of sounds

1 - 2years

 Using pronouns (I, you, me) correctly 

Using some plural and past tense words

Knowing at least three prepositions(in, on, under)

Knowing chief parts of bodyHandling three word sentences easily

Having in the neighborhood of 900-1000 word

Speaking in an intelligible manner (90%)

Starting to use verbs predominantly

Understanding most simple questions dealing with environment and activities

Relating experiences so that they can be followed with reason

Answering reasoning questions such as "What must you do when you are sleepy, hungry, cold, or thirsty?"

Being able to give gender, name, ageUnderstanding what is expected even when unable to answer all questions

Understanding differences in meaning ("go" vs "stop," "in" vs "on," "big" vs "little," "up" vs "down").

Following sets of two requests ("Get the book and put it on the table")

Listening to and enjoying hearing stories for longer periods of time

Having a word for almost everything

Using two- or three- words to talk about and ask for things.

Using k, g, f, t, d, and n sounds

Being understood by familiar listener

Naming objects

 3 - 4years

Knowing the names of familiar animals

Using at least four preposition

Demonstrating understanding of preposition meaning when given commands

Naming common objects in picture books or magazines

Knowing one or more colors

Repeating up to 4 syllables or digits

Demonstrating understanding of opposites like "over" and "under"

Grasping vowels and diphthongs and the consonants p, b, m, w, n

Enjoying make-believeUsing extensive verbalization during activities

Repeating words, phrases, syllables, and sounds frequently

Responding when called from another room

Answering simple "who?", "what?", "where?", and "why?" questions

Talking about activities at school or at friends' homes

Speaking in a way that can be understood by people outside of the family

Using sentences that contain 4 or more words

Understanding concepts such as "longer" or "larger," when a contrast is presented

Following simple commands without visual prompts 

4 - 5years

Using many descriptive words spontaneously (adjectives and adverbs)

Knowing common opposites: "big" vs "little", "hard" vs "soft", "heavy" vs "light"

Mastering number concepts of 4 or moreCounting to ten

Speaking in an intelligible manner with or without some articulation problems

Grasping vowels and the consonants, m,p,b,h,w,k,g,t,d,n,ng,

yRepeating sentences as long as nine wordsDefining common objects in terms of useKnowing his/her age

Understanding simple time concepts such as: morning, afternoon, night, day, later, after, while, tomorrow, yesterday, today

Using long sentences, including some compound and complex sentencesS

peaking with overall correct gramma

Paying attention to a short story and answering simple questions about it

Understanding most of what is said at home and in schoo

lUsing sentences that give lots of details

Telling stories focused on a topicCommunicating easily with others

Articulating most sounds correctly (except sometimes: l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh, th)

Following three consecutive commands given without interruptions5 - 6 years

Mastering sounds: f, v, sh, zh, th

Mastering number concepts up to 7

Speaking in a way that is completely intelligible and socially useful

Telling a story about a picture

Seeing relationships between objects and events

Recognizing and reproducing many shapes, letters, and numbers

Controlling writing and drawing tools

Understanding the relationship between writing and spoken words

Using invented spellingDictating stories for others to write 

 6 - 7 year

Mastering the consonants s-z, r, voiceless th, ch, wh, 

Handling opposite analogies easily: "girl" vs "boy", "man" vs "woman", "short" vs "long", "sweet" vs "sour"

Understanding concepts such as: alike, different, beginning, endTelling time to the quarter hour

Doing simple reading (ex: reading 10 printed sight words)Writing or printing many words 

Comprehending 20,000 to 26,000 words 

Understanding time intervals in a general manner, as well as the seasons of the year and related concepts

Printing numbers and own full name with no model 

Putting numerals 1-10 in proper sequential orderWriting one-syllable words related to sight vocabulary

Stating preceding and following numbers and days of the week 

Being aware of mistakes in other people’s speech

Telling address, both street and numberReciting the alphabet sequentially

Rote counting to 100Telling time related to a specific daily schedule

Spending hours at one activity (for example: mania for games, funny books

)Playing alone more effectively than at 6 years 

Planning actions 

Beginning to invent and designEnjoying table and board games

Dramatizing experiences and storiesUsing most parts of speech consistently

Developing the use of “if” and “so”

Developing reflexive pronounsUsing irregular comparatives correctly (good, better, best

Using nominalization (noun forms are developed from verb forms)

Improving use of irregular plurals

Using passive voice

Developing true narratives (well-developed plot and character with sequenced events) 

 7 - 8 years

Relating accounts of events, which occurred in the past

Using complex and compound sentences easily

Demonstrating a few lapses in grammatical constructions-tense, pronouns, plurals

Using all speech sounds, including consonant blend

Reading with considerable ease and now writing simple compositions

Following a fairly complex directions with little repetition

Having developed time and number concepts very well

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