But is play truly enough? Are children really gaining skills through playing "house" or "fire station?" Come take a peek at our updated playroom today, and you'll see just how a simple but thoughtfully executed play setup can invite young children ranging in age and development to target current skills and learn through meaningful play.
Every Chanukkah, our community hosts an ice skating party with a public menorah lighting right on the rink. We have always enjoyed the event from the outer perimeters (and you'll still find me there this year!) but S really wants to try skating! He has been talking about it for months and while it is not something I am so fond of (or talented in), I do not want to discourage his enthusiasm. Whether he loves it, hates it, succeeds or slides around on his tush the whole time, I'm glad he is eager to try something new (and equally glad my husband will go out there with him for a bit...)! S has been gleefully skating across our hardwood floors for months in his slippers and the party is just days away now. But why wait until Sunday when you can have a skating rink in your very own home?
Bakery. For that reason and also for the sake of my own strength and sanity, it felt important not to completely tear down and rebuild our play area. Sometimes I will do a complete "overhaul" in my home or classrooms and other times, I just morph and mesh things together. Since much of the fun of an ice skating rink is the hot cocoa and concession stand (especially for us wallflowers), I kept out most of our bakery themed items, tweaking and adding a bit here and there. I also felt it was important to let the boys know that there would be a change to our play area. It can be surprising to see a different setup in a playroom or classroom. For some, the element of surprise is appealing and for some it is unsettling. I like to keep it in a middle range, so I also engaged the boys in revealing the surprise. Since they are both still mostly illiterate, I had them color and decorate letter pendants that I would use to create a banner for our skating rink.
And speaking of the banner--I did not create this play setup alone! Many times I do come up with all of my own props, printables and play accessories, but in this world of modern technology and communication, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The incredibly talented teacher behind the website Pocket of Preschool has a variety dramatic play materials for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, including this Ice Skating Rink Dramatic Play bundle. This is a great way to save on time and support fellow educators.
So come on in to our play area, I mean Ice Skating Rink! Set your shoes in the shoe locker (which, FYI-- is S's new favorite thing in our house) and grab a pair of paper plate skates. Glide around the room with me (even I skated on a pair!) and see how the boys are learning a variety of early childhood skills all while navigating and directing their own play experience...
Art & Creative Expression: In addition to their artwork that helped create our "Ice Skating" banner, I like to engage both boys in creating or helping to create props we use in our play area. Many of the baked goods in our concession stand were handcrafted from Model Magic and gingerbread salt dough by the boys. I did the preliminary work on our popcorn machine (just a cardboard box cut and taped with some macgeyvered accessories to attach popcorn bags (from Dollar Tree) and a scoop (also from Dollar Tree). The popcorn is made from scrunched up squares of yellow paper. This is a task early cutters can help with and even younger ones and scrunch up paper to make popcorn. Alternatively, you could use packing peanuts (especially if in your collection of Amazon Prime boxes you also have a collection of packing materials). While there are a plethora of great dramatic play toys on the market, the expense is not always justifiable or necessary. Children love using props they made or contributed toward in play and it is a great way for them to creatively express themselves in their play space.
Dramatic play in and of itself is a natural opportunity for creative expression. I open up our play experience with a brief tour and demonstration of what is out and available. Nonetheless, the boys come up with their own ideas and play schemes. Sometimes they have an idea for set up or story line that is different from my own. Barring anything unsafe, I allow for it. For example, in our bakery, S really wanted to use a shelf for displaying items that were "for sale." This was not something I had planned for or intended, but it was important to his story line and I cleared a shelf for it. I even left the shelf that way in our Skating Rink Concession Stand because this idea was of value to him and his play. He also learned that a Zamboni (ours is a riding toy with a sign I made from a laminated photo of a Zamboni I printed) is used to clean the ice. He had the idea to use our dreidel collection as ice chunks and clean them off the ice with the Zamboni. Totally not what I had in mind. Totally something I allowed and supported. Then he realized that the surface of our Magnetiles was quite ice-like in nature and used those to build a perimeter around our skating rink. Again--not in the "plans," but definitely part of purpose.
I find that one of the areas I often get hung up on in my home or classrooms is letting go of my intentions for an activity and making space for the children's play needs and ideas. Critical thinking skills and creative expression are such an important aspect of early childhood development. Dramatic play offers a scenario where children can own and dictate their own story line and experience. Our role is to support their safety and success. I definitely prompted the Zamboni driver to haul off the dreidel shaped ice chunks to a proper receptacle after the ice was cleared and we decided driving the Zamboni on the Magnetiles wasn't super safe in the end. But overall, I sit back and follow the boys' lead. If they are stuck in an element of the story or how to execute an idea, I offer suggestions and support and other than that, they are in charge of the experience.
Math & Number Concepts: Money concepts and counting are early math skills that older preschoolers can develop through playing at a cash register and selling tickets or snacks at the concession stand. Size and spacial awareness are developed as the boys select skates in their foot size. Each paper plate skate has a velcro dot in the middle and there are a set of laminated "skates" printed from the Pocket of Preschool dramatic play set onto colored paper each with a size and corresponding numeral. They can match the number to their age or simply work on matching and sorting by size and color. Even the cold beverages are separated into small, medium and large sized cups to encourage early measurement concepts and sorting skills.
Social & Emotional Development: When children engage in dramatic play, they are working on a variety of important social and emotional developmental skills. Narrating and leading a story line builds confidence and critical thinking skills. Children must problem solve as they navigate the play area and work together with peers or siblings. Role playing requires the ability to share space, materials and ideas. These are challenging concepts for young children! It takes a great deal of self control to share one Zamboni between two brothers! Even the art of conversation--listening, taking turns and waiting for a response--come into play when skating rink attendants communicate on walkie talkies...
Gross Motor Skills: I like to encourage an element of gross motor play as much as I can in our home. Both boys have low muscle tone and staying active is imperative to their continued development. Especially at this time of year when it is dark out by the time they are finished napping, getting creative with indoor gross motor opportunities is vital for my energetic and active sons. An ice skating rink pretty naturally lends itself to gross motor play as they skate (S mastered the skill, Y, not quite yet...) and push themselves on the riding toy (again, S has mastered this, Y is still working on walking and riding). The addition of some creative props and games in the weeks to come will expand on this as we play ice hockey with soft hockey sticks and balls, shovel "snowballs" (rolled up white socks) with child-sized shovels off the ice and perhaps engage in an indoor snowball "fight." Recycled shoeboxes or smaller cardboard boxes can be wrapped in white paper and used for building an igloo or ice sculpture. Stay tuned to see more gross motor play ideas as we expand on our play theme...
Fine Motor Skills: Many elements already mentioned in our play setup encourage fine motor development. Taking off shoes and putting on skates, dressing in warm winter gloves and mittens, writing and creating props and art all use those tiny little muscles in the hands. Scooping popcorn from the popcorn maker, separating and stacking cups and attaching lids to hot beverage cups also support this skill. I still like to sneak in a little bit more, so the hot cocoa department of our concession stand comes stocked with a container of cocoa pom poms (brown) and marshmallow pom poms (white) and a couple of fine motor tools and tongs for picking them up and transferring them to hot cups and then back to their proper receptacles.
Practical Life and Self-Care Skills: We all know that children need to learn how to dress and undress themselves. Never are we more reminded of this than when the cold weather strikes. And yet, every parent and early childhood educator knows the struggle that is getting any number of children into and out of winter weather gear for time spent outdoors. Honestly, it's faster to do it ourselves so we can at least spend an equivalent amount of time outside as we do getting dressed and undressed for it! Transition times just don't seem to be the ideal ones for teaching the important skills of zipping coats, wrapping scarves, putting on hats and gloves and mittens. A simple and inexpensive collection of scarves, hats, gloves and mittens set out in a basket are the perfect dress-up accessories for this dramatic play setup and a great opportunity for children to practice these practical life skills through play. Y especially loves to dress up and had such a grand time working on putting on and taking off hats and scarves and even mittens. We're not rushing to get out the door and we have all afternoon to play together. This is the perfect time and place to work on self-care skills like dressing and undressing!
Science & STEM Extension Opportunities: Stay tuned to see some fun theme relevant science and STEM expansions on the blog. In the meantime, you can check out some great play and learning activities using ice we have already done here.
Time Saving Tips & How to Begin: This probably seems like a huge investment in time and money. It definitely did take some time to collect, prepare and set up our Ice Skating Rink, but I did not do it all at once. I print and laminate things in advance as I have the time at home. Laminating props and storing themes together definitely helps me with the time investment in future years and themes. I also use and reuse props throughout the year in different activities. It is easier to add to an already existing play theme (as we did with the bakery) than it is to completely overhaul a play space. I also do not introduce all of the elements of a play theme at once. That would be overwhelming for me and for the children! So I did not set out all of the play props for gross motor play yesterday, nor did I set up a new sensory bin or the small world skating rink and winter play loose parts I intend to add in the weeks to come. In revealing and setting up just a few new activities and props at a time, I allow the kids a chance to experience the play area and work on the skills to be developed through each activity without the rush and overwhelm of having too much, too soon. In fact, when I have completely overdone it in the past and revamped the whole room, not only was I exhausted at the end and unavailable for play and interacting, but the kids often lost interest after just a few minutes of exploring. Yesterday, both boys spent a good long while using just the skates and dress up and Zamboni. Later, they spent some time in the concession stand fixing drinks and snacks. It was more than enough and will likely continue to engage them for several more days before I add in or introduce anything else. I will, of course, keep you all posted on expansion activities and add ins. Until then...