Play: the underestimated powerhouse

By Lisa Vaillancourt,

Director of Strawberry Preschool

From the day your children are born, you are learning about them. It starts out with basic things: how to best soothe them? how to get them to fall asleep? How often do they like to eat? By the time your children are old enough for preschool, you are starting to explore how they learn, process, and retain information. Essentially, what’s the most effective way to teach them: using visual, auditory, tactile, or kinesthetic learning? Of course, they use all of their senses, but some are more drawn to certain ways of processing information. Play based preschool programs maximize all of these different types of learning styles and help develop social and cognitive skills, help children mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments. The teachers are educated in identifying and maximizing these special qualities and parents at home can, too. ‘Just playing’ can foster a life-long love of learning beginning at a very early age.

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Visual Learning
Visual learning is what we see and how they perceive it. Children see shapes and colors in everything around them. They can feel the satisfaction from seeing how a toy works or facial expressions/body language when they interact with their peers. Play based environments are designed to foster the children’s visual experience by having different shapes and colors around them. These are the foundation for math and science. The adults are there to help the children interpret and learn from what they see. For example, when a child is learning letter recognition it is great to point out all of the letters in their environment: something as simple as a stop sign. Ask: what letters do you see? What does the sign mean? What color is it? Letters, shapes and colors are all around us and there is visual learning happening all of the time.

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Auditory Learning
Children learn from sounds there hear around them such as music, nature sounds, vehicle engines and construction sounds. Auditory learners enjoy talking, listening to conversations and having stories read out loud to them. At school and at home, adults can foster learning through sounds by paying attention to their world and asking questions: do you hear your cereal popping? Is that a bird’s song outside? I hear your scissors slicing the paper. This can promote thoughtful conversations and concepts for language that they will use later on in school. They also learn to communicate in a positive manner with conversations describing what they are hearing.

Tactile Learning
Tactile learners process information best when they experience the world themselves using their own sense of touch. They learn about different textures, weight, and temperatures. When playing with slime or playdough, they are using their hands to learn fundamental science building blocks: it is cool, it is squishy, it is soft, it is heavy/light, I can manipulate it into shapes, it is different from sand, etc. Tactile learners learn best with hands on activities ranging from water play and the sand box to block building or simple things such as bubble wrap or finger painting.

Kinesthetic Learning
A kinesthetic learner is someone who needs to be actively engaged in their learning. They are 'tactile' learners who use movement, testing, trial and error and a non-traditional learning environment to retain and recall information. For example, when learning how to tie shoelaces, they will learn by trial and error, using practical ideas and working it out with their own hands until they are successful. These learners excel at gross motor growth with activities such as: soccer, dancing, dramatic play, climbing, bike riding, ball bouncing and just jumping around. They are learning about spatial awareness, timing, cooperation, and following directions to name a few things.

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All children learn visually, auditorily, tactilely and kinesthetically and it is this ‘whole child’ approach that makes play based learning so unique. When playing with blocks, for example, they are using many of their senses at the same time: they can see the square/round shapes and the different colors, they can hear them clicking together (loud or soft), they are using their hands to stack them and make bigger shapes and learn about gravity when they knock them over. They don’t even realize they are learning; it’s just happening. Teachers and parents who subscribe to play based learning thoughtfully and deliberately create environments where the children are using all of their senses and are learning many concepts at once. The children are enjoying the activities and are having fun, which fosters a pleasant relationship with learning early on. This translates into children and adults who enjoy learning and are curious their entire lives. So, the next time you see your child ‘just playing’, you’ll recognize the importance of this time and that there is so much more happening.


About the author, Lisa Vaillancourt, Director of Strawberry Preschool

Lisa Vaillancourt is an alumnus of Strawberry Preschool class of 1980. She began her journey in early childhood education at Cal State Northridge on a full basketball scholarship, studied Child Development and graduated with a BA in Sociology. After graduating, she returned to Strawberry Preschool and taught for 5 years while continuing her Early Childhood Education at College of Marin. During this time, she was also the Director of the after school program at St. Hilary’s. After 5 years at Strawberry, she decided to pursue her dream of being a children’s photographer. For 10 years, she was the head photographer for Classic Kids Photography. During this time she opened and ran their downtown Mill Valley studio. Realizing she missed teaching, she returned to Strawberry Preschool in 2012 and joined the Pre-K classroom. She was promoted to Director in 2021 and is thrilled to be leading the Strawberry Team. Strawberry Preschool, along with her sister school in Mill Valley, Tamalpais Preschool, have been promoting play based learning since 1956.

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