Promoting Play, Discovery & Exploration in Learning Environments

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Allowing young children to have plenty of opportunities to play, discover and explore will help you become a wonderful early childhood educator. This lesson offers ideas for how you can adjust your learning environment suitably.

Teaching Young Children

Sara is a preschool teacher who is new to the school where she is working now. She works with three-year-olds, and she is used to providing plenty of opportunity for free play, exploration and discovery. Sara knows that when children play, they are learning about themselves, each other and the world around them.

At Sara's new school, she has noticed that the learning environment, or physical space provided for students to learn in, is very structured. She begins talking with her administrator about how she might modify the environment to make more space for open play and discovery, as well as exploration.

Open Spaces to Move

First, Sara realizes that it is crucial for young children to have wide open spaces to move around in. She know that gross motor development, or learning to move with their whole bodies, is a crucial part of building young children's strength, balance, and faith in themselves. She also knows that wide open spaces will encourage students to take risks and try new things, exploring what they are capable of and enjoy.

To that end, Sara makes sure that the outside area includes a yard that is free of obstacles. She also organizes one section of her room to be nearly empty; sometimes, her young students start dancing, spinning, or putting on dramas there.

Pretend, Pretend, Pretend

Sara also knows that pretend play, or any play that involves the construction of a fantasy, is key to helping her young students process what they witness and think about the world around them. A good environment with important supplies goes a long way toward supporting pretend play. Sara alternates what is in the pretend play spaces in her classroom every few months, listening to children to discover what they are most interested in. Some of the pretend play areas she cycles through include:

  • dolls, doll clothes and doll kitchen supplies
  • cars, trucks and construction vehicles
  • blocks and other simple building supplies
  • trains and train tracks
  • materials for playing store, bank, library, or school

Investigation and Discovery

One of Sara's goals for her young students is to help them explore and investigate the world around them on their own terms. She knows that one way to do this is to provide plenty of observation materials, like paper for drawing on, magnifying glasses, clip boards and crayons. Sara also knows that letting children roam around outdoors, with supervision, will help them become investigators. In her own classroom, she creates a shelf where students can place natural objects they find outside or bring from home, then look at what others have shared. She also creates plenty of open channels for movement so that children feel free to investigate the various nooks, crannies and corners of her classroom during free play times. Finally, having a library with diverse and ever-shifting books in the corner helps encourage students to investigate the world of emergent literacy freely and at their own pace.

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