Play-based daycares and preschools use a child-centered approach that encourages students to move from one activity to another based on their own interests. Typically, a play-based curriculum is unstructured (or lightly structured), with the preschool teacher acting as a facilitator and guide, rather than a transmitter of information. Each day may be divided into predictable blocks (story time, free play time, nap time, etc.), but children are offered a choice whenever it's appropriate. Each child is also allowed to learn at his or her own pace, making play-based preschools a great option for a wide range of personalities, and for children with special needs.
The importance of play in early childhood education has been proven; play helps children learn and develop cognitive skills, social skills, and literacy skills. The classroom of a play-based daycare will normally be open and full of choice. A variety of stations will be carefully arranged to maximize the potential for exploratory play in science, books, music, art, etc. Children will typically play alone or in small groups, rather than spending significant time together as an entire class. However, there will be plenty of discussion between teachers and preschoolers, and concepts will often be taught through songs and games, or through gentle guidance as a child contemplates a building project or artistic creation.
Child care centers are more likely to offer a play-based learning approach than preschools, which tend to be more structured and oriented towards pre-academics. However, the distinction is by no means universal, especially in preschools that use a play-based curriculum, like Waldorf preschools
. Some parents may worry that a play-based approach might disadvantage their child in grade school, but studies have repeatedly shown that there are no meaningful differences between play-based and academic preschools when it comes to long-term academic success. That said, it is always wise to inquire about the level of structure and academics in a play-based child care program, as it can actually vary quite widely.
The Montessori philosophy, for example, is sometimes described as play-based and child-centered because it is designed to allow children to move at their own pace in each topic. However, it uses a far more structured and academic approach than other preschool philosophies, making Montessori preschools
less suitable for children who thrive in an environment emphasizing choice, flexibility, and imagination. Conversely, some children crave a higher level of structure than the one offered in many play-based child care centers. Nevertheless, play-based programs are versatile by nature and can work very well for a majority of children, making them one of the main options for parents looking for a daycare or preschool.