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Why incorporating play in preschool helps kids learn

Brandy Cocoroch and her preschool students play with dough at the Queen Street Childcare Centre.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

My three-year-old son and a friend are seated on the edge of a couch, barely containing an Everest of toys piled behind them. Each grip an invisible steering wheel.

"Oh no, we forgot the salt!" my son yelps. The pair hop off the "bus," race to a pretend kitchen cabinet and grab some containers to add to the teetering pile.

This is all hilarious to a doting parent visiting preschool for the morning, but is it anything more than a big messy blast for these boys?

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If education and child development experts are to be believed, it is. His school, the Queen Street Childcare Centre, run by the School of Early Childhood at George Brown College, embraces a play-based learning model, which is built on the idea that this freewheeling play can be the basis for a variety of education outcomes, from literacy to self-control. And it's not about unsupervised highjinks. His teacher, Brandy Cocoroch, gently breaks into their game during a lull to keep the momentum going.

"Can I make a cupcake order?" she asks, opening a cookbook. She chooses her favourite and the boys start on the pretend batter. Ms. Cocoroch then picks up a toy cellphone and says, "Will you call me when the cupcakes are ready?"

After a quick pretend call, Ms. Cocoroch arrives from across the room with a classmate. They count out plates and cups and sit down to the pretend treats.

According to those who research the science of play, this extended escapade may have ticked off a number of boxes. Research is suggesting extended dramatic play is key to self-regulation, now widely considered to outrank IQ as a predictor of success. They're navigating social relationships. Then, there were the more concrete attempts at counting.

"It's all math," says Ms. Cocoroch, later, in a meeting with her senior-pre-school room colleague and assistant manager of the centre, Kelly Antram.

Each Wednesday, while the children are napping, the pair meet to plot out how they can tweak the classroom for this group of 13 three- to five-year-olds. The centre also embraces the notion of "emergent curriculum." Instead of programming themes and activities far in advance, classroom activities are designed weekly to match the kids' interests.

I ask them about my son and his pal – I thought they played with cars all day. "In the last couple of days they've taken their dramatic play into the kitchen – we've never see that before," says Ms. Cocoroch, adding that post-Thanksgiving all the kids seem to be keen on cooking, especially pumpkin pie.

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The senior preschool team discuss the cognitive benefits of the "transformation of materials" and "testing hypotheses" they might tease out of fall ideas. But, they're clear that their Oz-like engineering can – and should – take on a life of its own. "You look for moments, you don't do it for them," says Ms. Cocoroch.

They are as much artistic directors as they are teachers – they see their jobs as setting a stage, redesigning the environment to keep up with the children's imaginations. By Friday, the space is transformed. There's a Lilliputian farmer's market against one wall, complete with mini straw bales, mini gourds, baskets, a cash register and little paper bags, all designed to inspire sorting and counting. On one of the tables a rustic cooking prep station awaits, complete with play dough and mini baking tins.

As they flood into the room, the kids appear to be trying their best to thwart any pre-conceived ideas about the fall-inspired themes. My son smushes the dough into a basket instead of a tin and breaks a wooden spoon while trying to extract it. There was also another child's dough-in-ear imprinting incident that had to be gently corrected.

Later, Ms. Antram tells me there were, indeed, more obvious successes. Pasting pages of fall words around the room inspired some kids to sit independently and copy the words onto paper. One girl had a breakthrough moment, saying, "Hey, that says 'pumpkin,' it says that over there," which led to more guided word-matching.

While naysayers may wonder if more time on actual sit-down school work might be a better way to capitalize on these budding brains, play experts say it's all about child-appropriate balance.

University of Delaware's Roberta Golinkoff says kids actually love some of the seemingly old-fashioned pursuits, too. "Kids want to write their name, you don't have to force anybody," she says. "They like to practise their number facts and add two and two together quickly. That stuff's all great. But it can't be the only diet kids get."

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Back in the room that Friday, one child is wearing out his Spiderman sneakers pinballing around the room with a stack of tin tart shells from the farmer's market display.

"Do you want to buy a muffin?" he says, holding a tin under my nose. I ask him how much I owe him. "Five dollars!" he says.

I feign reluctance as I pay with invisible money and he's off, looking for his next customer. While I don't know exactly how all this is going to turn out for these kids, from my perch on this miniature chair, nibbling on my imaginary muffin, I'm ready to buy into the power of play.

Playful tips

Let them lead: Even if it's cars or dolls for the thousandth time, let your child direct the play. Take on the character they ask you to. And if it doesn't make sense – like a pumpkin driving a spaceship – just go with it.

Keep it moving:Introduce a new plot twist to extend the game. Playing kitchen? Ask your child to make you some food and serve it.

Learning can happen anywhere:Stuck for material? It's time to settle that simmering debate over which Hot Wheels car is fastest. Or search for the letters in your child's name in a pile of books or papers.

Half-time:So, what if you have to make dinner for real? Set your child up with their own kitchen wares nearby.

On the floor:If all else fails, or if you're exhausted at the end of the day, there's no shame in just lying down and letting the play happen around and on top of you, says Janette Pelletier of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

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