Play is an important part of children’s growth and development. Meaningful play in early childhood helps introduce new concepts to children in fun ways and gets them excited about learning! In the classroom, unstructured play and structured play often take place side by side, sometimes with the same objects and play spaces.

Some objects are versatile enough to be used for a variety of play activities, both structured and unstructured. Kristen Kemple explores these objects as well as other aspects of play in Planning for Play. This excellent resource looks at the science and psychology behind childhood play and how it can be incorporated and adapted to fit the classroom. Below are five materials that can be used both in the playroom and the classroom to teach young children about everything from math to social skills!

• Sorting Stones: Sorting stones are exactly what they sound like—loose stones and pebbles that can be classified into groups. Keep a bin of smooth, natural stones in the play area and you’ll see how much children are drawn to them. They might stack them, arrange them into patterns, or just run their hands through the bin. For structured play, children can be encouraged to arrange the stones into groups of their own design; some might separate the rocks based on color, while another may organize them by size. Organizing the rocks teaches classification skills and contributes to mathematical principles.
• Wet Sand: Sand boxes or tables are fantastic sensory play areas that encourage exploration. During free play, children may pretend to be pirates and bury tiny treasures in the sand. Others might build sand castles. If measuring cups and spoons are kept in the sand area, children can begin to explore measurements like cup, half-cup, teaspoon, etc. Teachers can then use the sand table to demonstrate how these measurements work, encouraging children to determine how many half cups fit in a whole cup.
• Cardboard Boxes: Keeping cardboard boxes of various sizes around gives children opportunities to be creative. A big box can turn into a spaceship while a small box becomes a cell phone. Having boxes around also gives children the chance to design their own props for playtime instead of being limited to whatever toys are in the play center. A cardboard box can be anything! Teachers can assist this by giving children ideas for what to turn the boxes into. They can suggest the children reenact a story using whatever boxes are available, or help them stack the boxes to make a tall tower. The possibilities are endless!
• Clay: Clay provides a way for kids to do what they do best: get messy! Thankfully, it’s also very easy to clean. Children can enjoy the sensory experience of clay while also flexing their creative muscles as they strive to make people, animals, and objects out of the mushy substance. If other clay-shaping tools are available at the play station (i.e. plastic knives or cookie cutters) teachers can bring in concepts of geometry and spatial reasoning by prompting children to make new shapes. Can they make a square with the clay? What about a snowman? The movement of shaping clay is also good for children’s motor skill development.
• Blocks: Few toys are more versatile or iconic as simple building blocks. Whether they’re wooden blocks, plastic blocks, or Lego blocks, these small geometric shapes offer a plethora of play ideas. Children inherently desire to stack and build things, so many gravitate towards these play areas naturally. However, if teachers want to incorporate block play into a lesson, they can challenge the children by incorporating basic counting, like asking if a child can stack four blocks or five. Educators can also introduce problem-solving skills: if stacking the blocks in a straight line—one on top of the other—isn’t working, how else can the child stack the blocks and make them stay standing?

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