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The magic of play-based learning

Girl wearing construction hat
Angie Roberts

children working on books

Imagine a construction zone filled with eager engineers and architects. After exploring the entire construction industry – jobs, vehicles, tools, bridges, and buildings – preschoolers draft blueprints for a magnificent seven-story hotel with a working elevator. To celebrate the completion of their imaginary hotel, they host a ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

Down the hall, budding authors and illustrators take center stage. Following a bookstore tour and visits from local authors, students collaborate on three books: a non-fiction piece about their school, a collection of short stories called “The Everything Storybook,” and a rhyme-and-repetition book entitled “Spooky Day.” Then, they transform their classroom into a bustling bookstore for a celebratory launch party.

This is the magic of play-based learning, a cornerstone of Sayre’s preschool curriculum. It’s built on the understanding that children thrive when actively engaging with the world around them. Through play, they develop a love of learning that sets them up for success.

“Play-based learning allows us to have student-centered, student-guided classrooms,” says Jacki Neistat, head of the Lower School. “Play-based learning has a social component, a community component, a language development component for kids, all of which are massive.” 

Learning by doing

With cheerful names like the Magnolia Room and the Honeysuckle Room, Sayre’s preschool classrooms are where the magic unfolds. Here, learning comes alive through:

  • Projects, experiments, and role-playing: “Children are naturally inquisitive, and providing them with opportunities to investigate, discover, and create helps develop a love for learning and hopefully become lifelong learners,” says Ester Smith, preschool teacher.
  • Building community together: As preschoolers engage in even the simplest activities, like building structures with blocks, they discover how to communicate better and cooperate more with each other. “Children learn from each other as they explore and discover, and when there isn’t a right or wrong way to build or create, they are more confident,” Smith says. 
  • Turning inquiry into action: Even at a young age, children can formulate hypotheses, record data, and analyze results. During the Magnolia Room’s cat unit this winter, kids measured tail length, counted whiskers, and played cat bingo to learn breed differences in fur colors and patterns, developing their critical thinking skills.
  • Developing language at play: Play-based learning promotes vocabulary acquisition as children describe their experiences and articulate observations. “We are building high-level vocabulary through our learning and play, which is a predictor of literary success later in school,” says preschool teacher Ashley Bailey. 

The method behind the magic

A glimpse into the hallways of the Lower School reveals the framework behind play-based learning. Alongside student artwork, each room’s bulletin board outlines the three phases of each unit:

  • Phase I: Brainstorming and Inquiry - Students explore a topic, identifying existing knowledge and generating questions they want to answer.
  • Phase II: Investigation and Exploration – Teachers and students refine their learning objectives, acquire new skills, and embark on field work – trips, expert talks, and hands-on activities. 
  • Phase III: Sharing and Culmination - Students become storytellers, presenting their discoveries and learnings to the class. Just like real scientists, new questions emerge, prompting a fresh cycle of inquiry, discovery, and – of course – play. 

Play-based learning ignites children's natural curiosity and encourages them to actively engage with the world around them. It sets children on a path to becoming lifelong learners and cooperative citizens. 

“Play-based learning is the best approach to learning. It is research-proven,” Bailey says. “In preschool especially, my goal is always to raise up students who love learning and who are capable of doing hard things and persist with joy.”