Most of us know that early learners do best when exposed to play-based learning. Not only is play-based learning more engaging for the students than traditional classroom models (sitting at desks and doing worksheets or listening to lectures), it's also more memorable because it creates a positive and lasting connection to knowledge.
When I was a learning center director, I visited many schools and learning centers. Time and time again I saw students struggle with “traditional” math drills, such as worksheets, because they had not been given tangible math tools, or manipulatives (objects used in a way that teaches or reinforces a lesson), to make the learning come alive during pre-kindergarten and beyond.
When I spoke with parents about the positives of having a learning center with hands on activities and play-based learning, they often would express to me that they had no idea that this was so important, or worse, the learning center or school their child was attending had promised some form of play-based or hands-on learning that they did not deliver.
So how can you tell if your child’s learning center is truly play-based and hands-on? See below for some factors, which if combined, can let you know without just taking the brochure’s word for it.
1. How are the desks/tables/carpet squares/cushions set up?
- Avoid: Traditional desk rows or one large group
- Look for: Clumps, groups, or stations
2. Where will your child be learning and interacting?
- Avoid: Centrally based classrooms where attention is drawn to one area, like the whiteboard or chalkboard
- Look for: Colorful learning stations with varying activities, areas that differ in size, activity available, and structure
3. What kinds of manipulatives or objects are provided?
- Avoid: One area with stacked manipulatives in boxes
- Look for: Manipulatives of varying sizes, textures, and functions integrated into the overall classroom including sound-making objects, building objects, objects with wheels, large objects, small objects, etc.
4. Are there students there during your visit? What are they doing?
- Avoid: Centers where students are seated for long periods of time, more than one teacher-centered listening activity in a row
- Look for: Students utilizing movement, visible engagement in activities
5. Are there learning themes? This one is tricky!
- Look for: Repeated themes at learning stations—for instance, is there a book about the planets visible in the room? Are there models of the solar system elsewhere? Have children colored pictures of planets, or are there modeling clay planets about the room?
The above are just some visual cues that can help you select your child’s learning center—or see if a change might be in order for your current one. When asking the learning center’s staff if they include play-based learning and hands-on learning, it’s helpful to also ask them to discuss their activities. For instance, when I asked the Joseph H. Messina Center staff what kinds of play-based learning activities they were including this month, Ms. Kimberly and Ms. Sabrina described their “Jack and the Beanstalk” exercise. The class reads and discusses the story, then grows lima beans in a baggie. When the beans have grown roots, the class transfers them to soil. Ms. Kimberly and Ms. Sabrina then guide the class in observing, discussing, drawing, and measuring the progress of the beans’ growth.