High-quality preschool and child care programs have lasting benefits. Three studies, which followed children for many years, showed that taxpayers saved at least $2.69 for every dollar spent on high-quality early learning programs, by reducing special education, law-enforcement, and other costs.
Several studies have shown that children learn more from educational activities that support their own interests and ideas. Some researchers have found evidence that too much teacher-directed activity undermines young children’s self-confidence and motivation to learn.
Researchers are finding more and more connections between children’s play and the learning and social development that helps them succeed in school. For example, pretend play helps children learn to think abstractly and to look at things from someone else’s perspective. Pretend play is also connected to early literacy, mathematical thinking, and problem-solving.
When children play:
They test their developing ideas with objects, people, and situations—the key ability for academic learning They develop many kinds of skills together—physical, social, emotional, thinking, and language.
They are doing things they are interested in, so they have a natural motivation to learn. They develop concepts and skills together. For example, as a child learns to write the letters in her name, she is also learning the concept that each letter represents a sound. And she is very motivated by the meaning—her own name! Children are more likely to remember skills and concepts they have learned by doing things that are meaningful to them.
If children can use one thing to represent something else, it’s easier for them to understand that letters represent sounds and numbers represent quantities. And later on they will be able to their imaginations to visualize historical events or scientific ideas.
Through pretend play, children develop their skills in using language and in telling and understanding stories. Oral language skills and storytelling are the building blocks of reading and writing, as well as subjects like social studies and science.
When children play with materials such as blocks, clay, sand, and water, they develop skills in logic. They experiment with cause and effect, with counting and sorting things and solving problems. This practice in experimenting, observing, comparing, and working with shapes, sizes, and quantities forms the basis for understanding math and science and for all higher-order thinking.
As children share materials and play together, they learn to cooperate, listen to others, stand up for their own ideas, handle frustration, and empathize. Curiousity, motivation, and competence are key to success in elementary school.