Learning Through Play: Another Visit to Cherry Preschool

I walked into a classroom at Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois to check out the recent activities and get my fix of watching preschoolers doing what they do best – learning through play. A brief disclaimer: This is the school I founded and directed until my retirement, so it is definitely my happy place. The teachers are always excited to share some of their children’s recent activities. As usual, I felt uplifted by what I saw.

block play

Pictured above are kids learning some of those STEM skills by actually creating a feat of engineering with big blocks. They also learned quite a bit about teamwork as they decided how their construction would take shape. Check out what the child pictured below created using the foam blocks in the preschool’s Imagination Playground:


Science experiments were everywhere. In one classroom, the sand table was filled with magnetic wands as well as metallic and non-metallic objects. The kids wondered why some items were attracted to the wands while others were not. They experimented with how far away from an object the wand could be held before attraction was felt and how it felt when one wand repelled another.

sand table

One of the teachers explained, “Playing with magnets is eliciting questions and theories, which lays the foundation for scientific inquiry. Inquiry is an active process that requires many different skills such as observing, describing, predicting, theorizing, planning, and interpreting, plus communicating and sharing ideas. Hands-on play with the materials of the natural world allows children to form scientific concepts that lead to a progressively more complex understanding of the world.”

In this same classroom, a failed experiment led to some fascinating discoveries as well as interesting experiences with art. The children tried to paint with ice cubes and powdered tempra paint. When that was a fail, they wondered how to add water to make the powdered paint liquefy and move across the page in a creative way. Pipettes!  They dripped water on the powder and were amazed by the resulting balls of moving paint blobs. The teachers helped them to freeze liquid watercolor and they discovered the icy cubes of color glided across the page leaving swirls of color in their wake.

ice paint

In other classrooms, I saw my personal favorite art activity – easel painting. Just watching the intense concentration of children as they created whatever was meaningful to them was sheer joy.

easel paintgirl

These early childhood educators know they are sending their four-year-old students off to academic kindergartens that will expect them to know their alphabet letters (upper and lower case) and will endeavor to teach them to read. How to prepare the children for this without sacrificing the principles of developmentally appropriate education is a dilemma. Some ideas are found in classrooms promoting the foundations of literacy.

In several rooms, children are encouraged to “sign in” if they want to do so. The teachers begin with having children find their name on a chart and match it with a card with their name on it. Children who are ready may actually print their names next to the correct one on a sign in sheet. As you can see, the teachers model using upper and lower case letters, but most children are not yet ready to use lower case letters consistently. And that is fine.


Preschool literacy may take the form of learning a bit of phonics through songs like Willaby Wallaby or reading a favorite book together like Charles Shaw’s classic It Looked Like Split Milk and coming up with their own versions of the story.

spilt milk

One of my favorite preschool activities is having an adult volunteer write down stories dictated by the children like this one:

story 1

The kids can illustrate their stories or act them out. The latter is a great source of pride for these budding authors. Classmates perform the roles in the story read by a teacher, while the rest of the class serves as the audience. Teachers make sure every child who wants an acting turn gets one. There are more roles than you might imagine, and they make sense to the children. Thus, in the story below about the fish, we need a fish, water, a shark (most likely the role the author selected for himself), a shark’s mouth, a whale, a whale’s mouth, a volcano, and fire. The whole production takes under two minutes, but I have seen the pride of the author and it is amazing.

story 2

Children who learn through play are happy kids filled with the joy of learning. Like the child pictured below, they know how important books are and how much more fun they can be if shared with others.


Play is the way young children are meant to learn. Too bad it so often stops at the kindergarten door.

If you live near Evanston, Illinois and want to see learning through play in action, check out Cherry Preschool.


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