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purposeful play pre-k

Purposeful Play Builds Educational Foundation

Lots of playtime probably isn’t what comes to mind when you think about going to school. But for Arlington ISD’s Pre-K students, purposeful play is a big part of every day.

“Sometimes, when people hear the word play, they think it’s a bad word, that students are unsupervised, running around, doing whatever they want,” said Mallory Knox, a student support interventionist for Kooken Education Center and Community-based Pre-K. “In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Purposeful play in Pre-K is detailed, intentional, engaging, data driven and differentiated based on the learner.”

The key word is purposeful. The play is incorporated into the curriculum and is designed to foster curiosity and encourage learning in the district’s youngest learners.

“Developmentally-appropriate purposeful play is an engaging way to develop children’s intellectual, social, emotional and physical skills,” said Nadia Azari, a Pre-K teacher at Morton Elementary. “It encourages creative thinking while achieving intended learning outcomes.”

Why play?

Play is how young children learn. They are innately curious, and they feed and foster that curiosity through play.

“We know that children are naturally curious; they are fascinated by how and why things work,” said Nynve Sanchez, a Pre-K teacher at Crow Leadership Academy. “If we combine play by building sensory-rich experiences for students to explore, discover and ask questions, it will develop the natural curiosity they have as children into becoming life-long learners.”

That curiosity drives kids to explore. Through playful exploration, children discover the world around them and learn to make sense of it. When they find meaning and purpose in their play, they learn.

“Children do this primarily with their five senses,” said Ken Foster, a Pre-K teacher at Kooken. “What does it look like, sound like, smell like, taste like and feel like? To adults, it looks like playing. However, to the child, it is engagement in learning. The more sophisticated children become with using their five senses, the more efficient they become with adding new information.”

The play in the Pre-K curriculum is structured to tap into that curiosity, engage the five senses, foster creativity and bring meaning to their activities.

“Play provides the vehicle for students to be able to grow and develop many skills,” Sanchez said. “By exploring and playing they are able to build their social and emotional skills, fine motor skills, problem solving skills, vocabulary and gain the confidence to try new things, making them more independent.”

What does play look like in Pre-K?

Pre-K play can take many different forms, including singing songs, read-alouds, art projects and so much more. But, as Norma Cloud, a Pre-K teacher at Duff Elementary, said, it is “always intentionally planned to achieve set goals from district-based standards.”

Cloud explained how the types of play can vary throughout the day.

“There are times that the play is very open-ended, such as STEM tubs or themed centers,” she said. “During free choice center time, the students take the lead and the teachers are there to support the interactions. These have a learning goal but the path to get there isn’t as defined. There are also times throughout the day that are heavily teacher-led and structured but incorporate songs, dance and games. These are followed by activities that support the lesson and provide ample opportunities for the children to interact with a variety of materials, their surroundings and their peers.”

Preparing students for the future

“When asked what they did at school, my students might answer with, ‘I played!’” Cloud said. “They’re not wrong. But there’s so much more to it.”

Pre-K is about preparing young students to start kindergarten and kick off a life-long journey of learning. Purposeful play is designed to do just that.

“Purposeful play teaches the whole child, meeting them where they are developmentally, and providing the building blocks for a solid educational foundation,” Knox said.

Pre-K registration is currently open for the 2020-2021 school year. Learn more and register your child at