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Free Play + Playful Learning = Engaged Centers

If you thinking… what is playful learning? You’re in the right place!

Let’s see if you can relate to me on this one… Creating centers that draw children in and keep them engaged, all while helping them learn important skills that we’ve got to meet isn’t as easy as it sounds.

And that isn’t even to mention handling the sometimes messy, certainly loud noises of the busyness of all the little learners in your classroom. There is a reason that preschool teachers dubbed themselves “chaos coordinators”, because sometimes that feels like what we do. And sometimes it feels overwhelming.

When we let that overwhelm come in, it can lead to burnout and burnout really helps no one. I know this because I spent a year checked out and only doing the bare minimum, which didn’t feel good.

So if you are spending way too much time searching and scrolling Pinterest or Google for fresh new center ideas, if you feel like if there is one more thing added to your plate or your brain might just turn to mush…or if maybe you’ve got goals to meet and you just hate fluffy resources that are cute, but not age appropriate. I hear you because I was once there too!

Like I said, I spent a year completely checked out, I wasn’t trying anything new, I wasn’t chasing things out like I used to. I had certainly lost some of that passion and I really hated that feeling. I also hated that my children weren’t getting the best I could do, because I knew that they weren’t getting the best that I could do. So, I knew something had to change. When I decided to focus on changing how I run my centers, that overwhelming feeling changed.

Making Changes in the Classroom- Where to Begin?

I started by trying to really understand play and where classroom centers fit in with this continuum of play. Understanding how I could use the types of play in my centers and how they relate was the very first step for me. I decided that based on that continuum of play, and all these different types of play, that free play and playful learning is where centers fit best for me. Just by doing this research, it re-lit my fire, it kind of got me excited again to make a change that was going to be meaningful for my children.

The Difference Between Free Play and Playful Learning

Let’s be very clear about the difference between free play and playful learning and why I felt like both of them have a wonderful place in our classroom center environment. So free play. Free Play is generally what we think of as play and what parents think of as play. Children start and direct their own play. They are really the orchestrators. They drive what’s happening and you really are observing, but you provide those materials. You provide the materials that are in the centers and they use those materials to direct their own play. Examples of free play centers in my classroom include blocks, library, sensory, art, and outdoor play.

In contrast, playful learning is a little bit deeper, because children explore activities created by educators. Now a side note here, I don’t require these activities to be done. We are a free choice classroom, but I try to make them as engaging and exciting as possible because it draws them over and makes them want to explore it. In playful learning, educators setup activities, and then you might be modeling or guiding once or twice and then allowing children to explore these things on their own. Example centers for this in my classroom are writing math, science, the Literacy Center. 

Using BOTH Free Play and Playful Learning in the Classroom

I feel like the secret center sauce is a mixture of both free play and playful learning. And here’s why. In free play, most of the materials don’t change. Free play is often the most natural to children, it needs little to no explanation, they just know exactly what to do by instinct and they dive right in. Children can use the materials in multiple different ways. Every time they visit the center, the blocks can be changed into so many different things. So free play centers are constant and they’re familiar, which I think is a really important part of the balance. We want some things that are familiar and comforting and that children know how to do.

And then we can add in the other part of the mixture, which is playful learning. Playful learning is what creates the excitement. It cuts through some of the boredom, the old centers, if you will, because while free play centers are staying largely the same, playful learning materials are changing often. They are created by us in order to help children meet a skill or goal. We are able to add that piece in there that free play doesn’t always give us complete control over. Helping them practice skills in a meaningful, playful way.

They do need more guidance and modeling in these playful learning centers and they take more effort from us, but they provide that so important, new, exciting, “Ooh, what’s this” from children that keeps that balance of centers, and it keeps them fresh by adding those new pieces, they are becoming excited, getting engaged, not using the materials as inappropriately because they love finding something new there, and they’re ready to explore it. Whereas we also have those free play pieces, which do stay the same. So, they can be familiar and they can feel safe.

It’s this wonderful balance with centers that I feel like free play and playful learning centers accomplish so well. I also found that it took some of that overwhelm away when I looked at my centers through the lenses of both playful learning and free play. Now, I have a plan to keep that engagement and also keep my own sanity by not changing everything out all the time. But remember, it’s important to pace yourself when you’re starting to change centers, because that definitely can keep the overwhelm up. I slowly added in new centers that I wanted to change until it felt super manageable.

Guide to Preschool Centers

Does setting up centers in your preschool classroom leave you feeling overwhelmed?

Don’t worry! This guide will walk you through all.things.centers!

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I love helping preschool teachers be the best they can be, by providing quality resources and sharing fun ideas!

If you’re looking for play-based learning ideas, free trainings and all things preschool – you are in the right place!