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A Foundation for Success: Play-Based Learning and Its Role in the Rossman Curriculum

By: Lower School Director Rachel Dixon

February 18, 2020

“Play-based learning” is a term that you likely heard while investigating preschool options for your child. But what does it really mean? Here is a run-down of this essential approach, what it looks like in practice and how it supports the learning of young children. 

What is play-based learning?

Play-based learning is a child-centered, child-directed approach where teachers act as facilitators in the learning process. Play is the context for learning. This contrasts with academic programs which are more didactic in nature and typically driven by product, rather than process.

Research-based philosophy: Why is play crucial for development?

For a young child, play and learning are intertwined. It is no surprise that research shows play to be the optimal platform through which children learn. As Fred Rogers said, Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning. They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.”

Play offers children a way to experiment with causal relationships in a safe, engaging manner that builds off of a young child’s natural curiosity. Play is critical to all aspects of development. A well-facilitated, high-quality play-based program offers a foundation that can be traced to later successes in a wide variety of skills and subjects. The lists below detail just a few ways in which play connects to different developmental domains.  

Cognitive Development

  • Language development through peer and adult interaction and conversation
  • Literacy development through authentic literacy experiences (i.e. interacting with and creating a variety of print resources such as books, magazines, menus, signs, and labels)
  • Sustained focus on a task
  • Problem-solving
  • Mathematical applications (i.e. games, patterning, number sense)
  • Scientific thinking - developing and testing a hypothesis 
  • Executive function skills (i.e. memory, planning, cognitive flexibility)
  • Creative thinking

Social-Emotional Development

  • Cooperation and problem-solving skills
  • Understanding the perspectives of others
  • Building delayed gratification and wait-time for peers
  • Developing growth mindset (mistakes are a part of learning)
  • Emotional regulation

Motor Development

  • Exposure to a variety of tactile and sensory experiences
  • Coordination to complete various tasks with both large and small muscle groups
  • Practice of fine and gross motor skills through the manipulation of a wide variety of toys, tools, outdoor equipment, and space to explore

How do teachers support learning through play?

A foundational element of a teacher’s training includes learning about Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.” Simply stated, this idea means that when learning, there is a “sweet spot” that is rooted in our established knowledge and capabilities, but pushes us just a little further so that we may continue to grow and extend our learning. Our teachers strive to find this zone for our students every day.

In a play-based environment, this means that teachers are offering the right materials and activities, but also facilitating play in ways that hit that “sweet spot” for our youngest learners. This might include questioning students as they play or entering their conversation, or it might mean playing alongside and offering extensions either directly or through modeling. For example, a child may love building with blocks and be well-versed in tower building, but with teacher modeling or suggestion, that child may be challenged to take this engineering knowledge to the next level with bridge building. The role of the teacher varies from moment to moment and it is the expert early childhood educator who knows when and how to step in, but also when to step back.

How is it embedded in Rossman’s curriculum and approach?

At Rossman, we offer guided play experiences for our Junior Kindergarten students. This is evident if you have had the pleasure of visiting our JK classroom as the space naturally invites play and exploration. Our materials, activities and environment are intentional and designed to build the skills we would like to see developed in our students. The structure of play varies across our JK day with certain times designated for free choice and others more explicitly guided by teachers. This hybrid offers an opportunity to meet all developmental needs and to challenge children appropriately within their “sweet spot” while also allowing for autonomy, creativity and student choice. 

Early academics are infused into teacher-guided activities and through the choices and materials set out for students each day. Concepts such as patterning, sequencing, simple addition, letter formation, alphabetic knowledge, phonetic skills, listening comprehension, and even early reading are part of small group games and activities led by our teachers each day. Our students transition into our Senior Kindergarten program with a strong foundation in skills across all domains, having achieved these through play-based learning that honors the needs of young children.


Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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