How Play-Based Preschool Builds a Strong Academic Foundation

Parents know that in a competitive world, it’s their job to help equip their children with all the skills they’ll need to succeed. While it’s easy to get caught up in a preschooler’s academic potential, future school success is actually built on a foundation of social, emotional and interpersonal skills that are best gained through something children do naturally — play.

“A good play-based curriculum builds a foundation for academic success by promoting collaborative problem solving and developing soft skills like self-regulation, attention, critical thinking, self-advocacy and confidence,” says Kathy Hager, director of Fourth Church Day School, a preschool for 2- to 5-year-old students located on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

While more tangible, measurable skills like reading and math may capture the attention of parents who want to be sure their children are adequately prepared for a formal school setting when the time comes, it’s important to recognize that skills like knowing how to ask for help, being able to regulate behavior and having an appropriate attention span are all important for learning success, Hager says.

“Some children at our school can read sight words by the time they go to elementary school, but it’s not our goal. The philosophy of a play-based curriculum is that children learn best when they follow their interests,” Hager explains. “If they are expected to learn something that they’re not yet interested in, it’s not an optimal window for learning. This doesn’t preclude academics, but does form the foundation for their learning.”

Creating the environment

At Fourth Church Day School, teachers carefully set up their classroom environment to allow children to explore whatever captures their interests. Space and flow are important design elements to a well-planned play-based classroom.

“It’s important to make sure there are spaces for all types of interests and development,” Hager explains. “Teachers provide areas with blocks, art projects, dramatic play, writing and other fine-motor activities. As the children play, they get to know each other. As the teachers discover the children’s interests, they create themes based on these interests.”

Because dinosaurs are popular right now among the children at Fourth Church Day School, teachers created a big box of dinos of all sizes. While playing, children compare and contrast the dinosaur attributes, build homes and caves for them, sort them based on their own criteria, and collaborate with each other to share the limited resource of one box of dinosaurs.

“The children spark organic conversations about the dinosaurs’ wings and spikes and colors. In this way they learn from each other, too, because they have an avenue to attend to not just what the teacher leads but what other children are investigating as well,” Hager shares.

Assessing development

Preschoolers at Fourth Church Day School have ample opportunities to create self-portraits, write their names, dictate stories and create other work which teachers use to compile a portfolio to assess their progression throughout the year. Social-emotional development is assessed throughout the year with anecdotal records, written as teachers collaborate and reflect on a day’s activities. Children also have individual goals they achieve through their preschool program, Hager says. Younger students, for example, are working on separating comfortably from their caregivers and interacting with a group.

“Making friends, socializing and developing social skills is a big part of preschool. Parents are often curious about who their child plays with and what they are interested in at school,” she says. “At the end of the day, the best testament of growth is when a child goes home and can recall what happened at school, what they are excited about and questions they and their friends brought up.”

Because few places in the world are built with the child in mind, a play-based learning environment should be designed for children and become their own community. “This is their workspace and it’s important they feel they are part of the community and they are contributing. Sharing ideas at circle time and having responsibilities like line leader, door holder and weather reporter are some ways they contribute,” Hager says.

And, because preschool is a child’s work, a parent’s interest in what their child does during their time at school reinforces participation and ownership for the child. “Projects that come home offer visual clues for their activities and give children the chance to recall the process of how they made it, which develops memory skills,” Hager says. “It also gives them an opportunity to share their work and have a sense of accomplishment and pride that they did something of their own.”

A sense of place

Even in a busy downtown, Fourth Church Day School has space for running, jumping, rolling, sliding and all large motor skill development in its indoor and outdoor playground areas.

“We’re lucky to have a large, private playground and we get outside as much as possible. It’s important for children to move their bodies and in a variety of ways,” Hager says. “Research underscores the positive impact that cardiovascular activities like running and jumping have on attention and self-regulation, both important skills for future academic outcomes.”

Outdoor play provides further opportunities to problem-solve and collaborate. Deciding which direction the bike traffic should flow or how to get the wagon unstuck in a snow drift are problems that are meaningful and solvable for preschoolers. Being outside allows them to observe the weather and foliage changes and they discuss why they need to wear hats and boots. “The change of season gives them a chance to sharpen their observational skills and build new vocabulary,” Hager says.

In addition to a safe, welcoming play-based environment designed just for young children to learn and thrive, Fourth Church Day School is a family-centered community for parents and caregivers to get to know each other. In addition to hosting parent educational and social events, the school welcomes parents to participate in preschool life by being a Mystery Reader, a librarian, a story dictation scribe, and many other opportunities.

“We think it’s important to support fellowship among families and provide opportunities for them to meet and share about their lives,” Hager says. “Even something small like providing a comfortable space to wait for class to dismiss, can help build community.”

Learn more about Fourth Church Day School at

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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