Play is an important part of a child’s development.

According to Kristin Kuhn, rising early childhood director at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, and Rivky Wolf, early childhood administrator at Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, play-based activities and lesson plans lend to engaged learning.

“Studies show that young children learn so much more by being actively involved in a play activity than by sitting and listening or watching,” Wolf said.

She described a situation where children are playing at a sand table. In this situation, they would learn science, fine motor skills, thinking skills, problem-solving, social skills and language.

“All of this while just ‘playing,’” Wolf added.

Kuhn said play and exploration are where children learn best.

“It’s their work,” she explained. “It’s how they put the world around them into context. Research shows that children learn best when they are in a setting that allows them to discover. (Play) is tied to their social/emotional behavior, physical growth and cognitive development. This is how children develop a sense of imagination, increase their language and eventually understand cooperation and community.”

While concentrating on Judaic concepts, Hebrew Academy teachers integrate play directly into their lesson plans and classroom environment.

“For example, while verbally introducing the dipping the apple in the honey for Rosh Hashanah, the children will find an array of apples in the kitchen corner,” Wolf said. “They will get to taste many sweet and sour tasting foods during snack time, and even make apple prints in the paint corner by using cut-up apples in various shapes.”

She went on to explain different play-based lessons for Sukkot and Chanukah, saying children will learn traditions and concepts best by playing and interacting.

At Hathaway Brown, the early childhood program is built on play.

“We take play and build on top of it with the concept of ‘discovery learning,’ which is a continuous cycle of exploration and allowing children to reach the stage of autonomy,” Kuhn explained. “We then layer on top of that project-based learning, which is taking an idea or concept that the children are interested in and want to learn more about. We weave literacy, math, science, gross motor and fine motor skills through those projects. So, play looks multifaceted.”

Both professionals said children react differently to play as a learning tool, so this looks different for each child.

“This is how children develop a sense of imagination, increase their language and eventually understand cooperation and community,” Kuhn said. “It can certainly look different from child to child, especially as they grow from solitary play to parallel play and eventually cooperative play.”

Wolf added, “Because each of our children is unique, they gain different levels of skills and knowledge through their play. But, they are all learning, gaining knowledge and improving many of their skills through play.”

Children engage in play almost all day, even when they aren’t at school. This sets responsibility on parents to continue the engagement, the professionals said.

“Play comes easy to children, but it’s sometimes harder for adults,” Kuhn stated. “They find it tricky to step into a state of just playing, but what we suggest is follow your child’s interests. Watch and listen for your child to take the lead, allow their imagination to go to work and support them especially as their play becomes more collaborative.”

Wolf agreed, saying parents should form a partnership with their child’s teachers.

“We strongly believe that when our parents entrust their precious children into our care they are creating an active partnership with us,” she said. “We try to educate our parents on successful early childhood education techniques, to encourage not only our children but also our parents, to become lifelong learners and to always learn by doing.”

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