This week, I spent several mornings in two area preschools, observing 3, 4 and 5 year olds in action. My OT "trained eye" was looking for sensory processing challenges, fine motor delays, gross motor challenges, and other areas of concern, and my goal was to generate suggestions for teachers- to indicate specific ways the teachers could support each child's success in the classroom. I jotted down observations about bilateral coordination, motor planning, pronated grasp, retained reflexes, self regulation, sensory modulation. But as I watched these preschoolers play, I paused from my "OT jargon", "performance component" note-taking to observe the heart and soul of all this motor, sensory and social development: unstructured, exploratory PLAY. I was struck by the pure innocence and imagination of preschool play- I watched these preschoolers come up with creative new ways to play with classroom materials. I observed them problem solving how to build a tower out of paper towel tubes. I listened to them negotiate who was going to "go first" in a group game.
These preschoolers danced around on a rug, pretending to be animals, making animal noises and working as an "animal team" to save the sheep (fostering creativity and peer cooperative skills). They rolled on the floor and crashed on a beanbag chair, pretending to be fish in the ocean waves (learning how to process movement and vestibular input and modulate sensory response to input). They put cones on their heads like "firefighters" and "pushed the firetruck" up a hill (providing their joints with feedback and proprioceptive input). They pulled cotton balls apart to make "bubble bath bubbles" and finger painted on an easel and explored with shaving cream (engaging intrinsic hand strength, promoting wrist extension and facilitating sensory tactile tolerance and processing). They crawled like bears in a line to transition to the rug for circle (building shoulder stability, coordination and tolerating change in head position). These preschool children were working hard "performing their daily occupations", and their medium of learning was PLAY. Play is children's work- how children learn and grow and develop. And through play, children explore their environments, they process movement, they interpret and understand sensory information, they build motor skills, and they practice social skills, all through the activities that are waiting for them their preschool classrooms each day. And most importantly, preschoolers in supportive preschool programs learn at a young age to embrace how amazing and unique each of them is and learn to embrace the uniqueness of their peers too.
Who facilitates all of this learning through play? Preschool teachers. I was amazed at how hard the classroom teachers were working to design and facilitate the most successful , meaningful and engaging learning experiences for each child in their class. The teachers artfully designed enticing, child friendly, fun, playful activities that simultaneously build all of the developmental foundations to help each child to grow and succeed. I run teacher workshops regularly, and I find that preschool teachers especially are so incredibly receptive to try ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that is going to support the development of each child in their class. In addition to their education and expertise in early childhood, the dedication, commitment and love that preschool teachers have for the children in their classrooms is unparalleled. All three of my own children are older now, but all 3 attended one of these amazing preschools. And when I look back at the experience my own children had as preschoolers, I can truly say, both through the lens of a pediatric OT and through the lens of a mother, I am so incredibly grateful for the experience that they had as preschoolers, and I can acknowledge that so many of the life skills that they carry with them today (the essence of who each of them are as older children), began when they were in preschool. Your child's preschool teacher will be your child's biggest advocate and will play an integral part in shaping your child's development- all of it coming from a place of nurturing, caring and understanding. Embrace preschool and capture the memories, and know that your children are in incredibly capable and caring hands.