Playing to Learn in Kindergarten

By Sharon Taylor on February 3, 2012
  • Grades: PreK–K

Kindergarten classrooms across our country have drastically changed over the last two decades. A place that was once filled with the sounds of laughter and play has transitioned into a place where testing programs for state and national standards are drilled and practiced.

I strongly believe that children learn best in environments where they are free to explore, discover, and play. Constructive play is an important part of the cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional development of children. As you already know, kindergartners are full of energy.  When children are able to release energy through play, they can accommodate more information. For this reason, kindergarten teachers all over are struggling to find ways to balance play and academic achievement in their classrooms. 

As a kindergarten teacher I try to incorporate diverse forms of constructive play into my daily schedule. When I use the word play, I am not referring to a period of chaos or a period when anything goes. It is a time when my students can make independent choices, learn from others, and express themselves while exploring the classroom. Play is not just recreation. I rotate several free choice centers in my classroom that are set up for students to practice various academic skills in fun and creative ways. 

Let’s take a look at some of my students' favorite centers.


Housekeeping/Dramatic Play

This is one of the most popular centers in my classroom. This center helps children to think across many academic areas while using real-life situations. Through the housekeeping/dramatic play center, teachers can incorporate language and social skills.  It also helps students become aware of numbers and words, reading and writing, and other forms of communication. During my teaching career, I have seen this center transform into a grocery store, restaurant, doctor’s office, and more. There are so many skills you can incorporate into each of these options. For example, when playing grocery store, have your students develop a shopping list using word cards or phonetic spelling. 



I use the blocks center to reinforce many of the math skills we are working on in class. In this center students can practice describing sizes, shapes, and measurements. Kindergartners can also use blocks to help develop math skills such as addition and subtraction. One of my favorite activities is watching my students design and build unique structures using a given set of blocks. What is even more fascinating is listening as these little ones describe their structures. 





The kindergarten art center is more than a place where students go to color. It is a great place for students to express their creativity, socialize with friends, and create great projects to share at home. The art center is also a place where children can explore a variety of interesting materials, including paints, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and materials found in everyday living. Each week I set up a new activity for students to complete in the art center, such as painting the setting from a book or a favorite character.



Sand/Water Table

This table or tub is filled with sand or a similar substance such as rice or grits. Kindergartners love the feel of the material and the experience of digging and pouring. Students can practice skills such as measuring as they pour material from one container into containers of differing sizes. I also like to use this center when students are learning what sinks and what floats. The sand and water table requires constant supervision! 



The practical application of learning is the goal of many educators. Young children learn by doing what they love. They learn through play and experimentation, and by exercising their imagination. How do you incorporate play in your classroom? Please comment below!


Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.

                                                                                         ~Fred Rodgers


i love your school


Sharon, I am an assistant in an early childhood classroom. I have read your blog and loved your ideas for the different centers. It is amazing how much children learn when they play. In the classroom I assist in we do a lot of “playing”. When we are not doing group activities like circle time and table top, our students are beginning to learn letters and numbers, how to write, and most importantly how to share and play together nicely. We have four main centers: book area, block area, art area, and kitchen area. In each of these areas, the children have an opportunity to practice these skills they are beginning to learn.
In the book area: the students can play on the Smartboard, where they can do activities already loaded or play online games from or; look at books or have us read them, put floor puzzles together, and do pretend play with doll houses and puppets.
In the block area: the students can build with blocks, play with giant animals, or play in the sand/water table. In the table so far we have had sand, rice, and now snow in it. We put a variety of miniature toys (ex. measuring cup, cars, digging utensils), and recently letters in the table.
The teacher hung up a word list next to the table, so the kids can dig up the letters to spell words. I do agree with you on the fact it has to be closely supervised.
In the art area: the students can play with puzzles, board games, and draw with a variety of art supplies ranging from crayons to dot markers. We provide them with coloring sheets and blank paper, so they can let their imaginations run wildly.
In the kitchen area: the kids usually pretend to cook food for us, take our order, play with baby dolls, and talk on the phone. Since it is also next to the classroom refrigerator, the kids can use the large letters stuck to it, to spell words or practice putting the letters in order.
This is how we incorporate learning by play in our early childhood classroom.

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