Understanding Children’s Play: Wisdom from a Preschool Teacher

Play can be a window into your child’s world! An expert explains how interpreting play can help you decode what your preschooler may be thinking and feeling.

Preschool is a big milestone for both children and parents. Yet, as exciting as preschool can be, it is often accompanied by behaviors that may leave parents stumped.

One way to understand what’s going on for young children is to understand their play.  “A child’s play will tell you a lot about them”, says Karen Hermach, a preschool teacher with an M.A. in Early Childhood Education at The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool. “For preschoolers, play is how they express themselves and relate to others,” she says. “Play tells you what is on their minds, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. It also provides a window into how and what they learn.”

Play is a window into your child’s world

In addition to being fun, play is also the medium in which children communicate their inner world. Yet, understanding what children are expressing can be challenging. For example, your child may be having a doll say things that are confusing to you or create a game that you can’t make sense of – which is natural for little ones!

When parents support their children’s play, they are supporting their child’s emotional growth. Instead of asking direct questions about the play like, ‘Why is your doll saying that?’ parents can make observations about the play. 

“I call this planting seeds for discussions,” says Hermach. “You could say, ‘Your doll seems upset,’ or ‘It seems like you are excited about this game.’ Children use play to process the world around them, and even when the play may not make sense to an adult, it makes sense to them.” 

Joining in a child’s play also helps to learn about their likes and dislikes, says Hermach.

“At Smart Love, teachers are always available to play. It’s the most robust way we get to know the children. We want them to feel comfortable, happy and eager to engage in learning so they can experience that using their minds and imagination feels great.”

A teacher and student playing a Game at Smart Love Preschool
Photo courtesy of the Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool

Play helps children process their emotions, fears and obstacles

If children are experiencing challenging emotions at school, this can be expressed through their play. When teachers are trained to understand a young child’s play, they will be aware that the child is struggling and therefore better able to help with the child’s feelings. This is important because when teachers address their feelings in a constructive way, they are not only modeling how to navigate difficult emotions but they are also helping the child return to classroom activities.

Hermach gives an example of a child who was engaged in dramatic play. “The child began to demonstrate anxious feelings and started playing airplane. I said, ‘I can see you’re flying your airplane. I wonder if anyone you know has flown on an airplane?’ This opened up a discussion that revealed her mom was traveling for work. To help her process her feelings, we acted out going to the airport, getting on and off the plane, going to the hotel and then reuniting as a family.” 

This type of play and support helps children feel better by understanding what to expect in a situation and even lending it an element of fun.

When a child doesn’t get this kind of support to help them with their feelings, Hermach explains, they can keep playing the scenario over and over again trying to work it out on their own. To successfully re-engage in the classroom, they need a caring adult to help them make sense of their feelings and help them feel better.

Preschool play can also help smooth social situations such as not wanting to share a toy or getting rebuffed by a friend. Acknowledging feelings and then redirecting children towards a different activity helps children feel heard and valued. Teachers might say, “I see you want to play with that toy, but someone else is using it. Let’s see if we can find another one or would you like to play this while you wait?” 

“This approach eases frustration and provides a road map to handle tricky situations while making the child feel heard,” says Hermach.

Play helps ease preschool separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is a common hurdle faced by children entering preschool. Using play can help ease a child’s anxiety about leaving parents or siblings at home.

“At Smart Love, we offer a gentle transition for children,” says Hermach. “Parents are welcome to stay on-site in a nearby space until their child feels comfortable. When the child is ready to branch out, we often use play as a way to transition from home to school.”

Empowering learning through play

Smart Love teachers utilize children’s play as a launching pad to incorporate cognitive concepts. For example, a child might be interested in trains and want to build tracks around the classroom. Hermach says, “Teachers will use ‘I Wonder’ statements to spark curiosity towards concepts like, ‘I wonder what shape the train tracks should be? I wonder how many tracks we need to make a circle?’ Then we explore together.” 

If a child has an unconventional idea on how to use a particular toy or material in the classroom, Smart Love teachers embrace the child’s creativity. “I have seen really creative ideas,” says Hermach. “For example, one child used our abacus to replicate the grill on a mail truck they were building out of blocks.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the Smart Love approach is modeling healthy and kind relationships. 

Hermach says they put this philosophy into practice at Smart Love Preschool each day. “Our director and all the teachers are here for the children and for each other. They see us ‘playing well together’ and this provides a template on how to interact with their peers. The children act so kindly towards each other. It’s really incredible the community that they have together.”

For more information about the Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool, please visit  smartlovefamily.org.

Jennifer Kales
Jennifer Kales
Content editor Jennifer Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years creating advertising copy, blogs, books and everything in between. She loves helping Chicago Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with audiences.

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