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Revisited: Play-based learning for school readiness [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to have revisited a previous episode with Dr. Elanna Yalow, Chief Academic Officer at KinderCare. We discuss how educators can support children as they learn through play. She highlights how play and academics are not separate from each other. Instead, play is the instinctive way that young children learn how to problem solve and develop skills. We discuss some strategies that educators can use to incorporate play into their practice.

Play is the way young children learn about their environment, grow relationships with each other and develop school readiness skills such as self-regulation, language, problem-solving, creativity, and social interaction.

Key components of play such as interacting with others and exploring an environment in a stress-free way are proven to improve developmental outcomes.

The classroom environment should be intentional, educators should be aware of where children are in their development and how to support their growth through play in this learning environment. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, provide opportunities for new activities, and guide children through an open and fluid environment.

Children do not have to be taught how to play, it is a natural instinct. Meet children where they are at and you will see results!

Love what you do and enjoy the moments. Children are just miraculous. Find a time in a classroom to step back and just watch them explore and learn. And just enjoy being part of their families lives and sharing their incredible journey with them. There is so much joy in an early-childhood classroom and sometimes you’re so focused on the important work you do. Make sure you always take time to step back and reflect not only on how joyous it is but the incredible difference you’re making. You are changing children’s lives. You are changing the trajectory into their future.

Elanna Yalow

Listen to the full episode to dive deeper!

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Podcast Transcript


Elanna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Nice to be here, Ron; nice to spend some time with you.


So, we’re so delighted today to have on our show Dr. Elanna Yalow. She’s the chief academic officer at KinderCare who also this year has celebrated their fiftieth birthday as an organization, serving children in early-childhood education. That is quite a milestone. Tell us about your journey with KinderCare and KinderCare’s journey over that 50 years to get a sense of what has changed and how much has changed over that timeframe.


Wow, that’s a long question. It’s been so many changes in early-childhood education over 50 years and I’m very proud to say I’ve been a part of KinderCare for 30 of those 50 years. I think that KinderCare’s journey has been one that’s always been focused on trying to do what’s best for the children and families we serve.

And what’s been interesting to see is over the years how families have really changed their expectations for early-childhood education. I think if you go back to the early years of KinderCare, or even my early years in the early-childhood education world, parents are really looking for just a safe and secure environment for their children so they could most typically go to work or have time to do other things. And it’s really changed with how parents recognize the incredible importance of early-childhood education in supporting your child’s development and in really making sure that their children have the best start in life.

So, along with that understanding of the power of early-childhood education has come a real shift in parents’ expectations. And we’ve been very proud to be able to grow and evolve with our families and to make sure that we’re meeting their needs as families and certainly the educational foundation needs that their children have.


So, do you feel like you’re getting that from parents, then? Because that’s something I’ve always wondered. So, obviously within the early-childhood education community we know and are always trying to get the word out about the importance of early-childhood education. But it sounds like what you’re saying is you now also have more and more parents coming to you with higher expectations.


Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. What I also want to say – and it’s kind of I think a theme we hold to very strongly here at KinderCare – is that every family is different. So, different families come to us with different needs and different expectations. There certainly has been a shift in terms of understanding the importance of early-childhood education as really the foundational years to help children be successful in school and later life. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other families who really do come to us just because they know they have a need to go back into the workforce or to participate in the workforce and want to be very confident that their children are in a safe, secure and loving environment.

The great thing is that all that goes hand-in-hand when you think about providing the right environment for children. Just from a health and safety perspective that’s completely aligned with also giving them the right experiences that help them get ready for school. So, we can meet our families needs and really solve their challenges and partner with them because, as we all know, being a parent is not easy and that it takes a great support network to really help parents not only be successful but to feel good about the opportunities that they’re creating for their children.


And, as our audience would know, who are all very involved in early-childhood education, the viewpoints about play and learning and development have also evolved quite a bit over the years. And maybe you can touch on sort of your experience with that change on people’s viewpoints on the importance of play in early-childhood education.


You know, it’s interesting that you’ve put it that way. I think there’s still some ambivalence in terms of families recognizing how important play is for young children’s development. As we know, as early-childhood educators, play is really the way young children learn to explore and learn about their environment, build relationships with others and grow and develop. But some families or some people still kind of contrast more play-based programs with those that are targeted to produce school readiness skills.

But what we know is that play is really the best way to help children develop those school readiness skills. So, in some parents minds I think there’s a little bit of a false dichotomy about whether they want their child to be in a play-based program or a more academically focused program.

But play has been shown to develop health, to develop self-regulation, language [and] communication skills, cooperation, problem solving, creativity… I mean, you can go through almost anything you’d want to see a child learn in their earliest years. And one of the things I would do is, I just encourage adults to watch children play and see just how many skills are being tested and develop, all the critical skills that they’re going to need throughout their lives.


And certainly it’s something we hear a lot, at least in the early-childhood education community, about the importance of play. But is there actual research behind the importance of play at the youngest ages?


Yeah, there’s a tremendous volume of research about the importance of play for young children and the skills that it helps develop, again from language and literacy skills to critical executive function skills to social interaction skills. Play has been studied literally through the ages. And we certainly noted that key components of play in terms of interacting with others and using play opportunities to explore their environment in a relatively stress-free space has been shown to really support children’s development across a wide range of outcomes.


If we’re working in an early-childhood preschool environment how do we strike the right balance of providing these opportunities for play, versus maybe some of the more academic things like learning you’re A-B-C’s and your 1-2-3’s? Where do those go together? How do we think about that?


Yeah, that’s such a great question. And honestly it’s so easy to answer because they absolutely go together. Again, it goes to sort of the comment I made earlier about how some see it as one or the other instead of they both come together.

From a child’s experience, when you walk into an early-childhood setting it should be playful, fun, [and] engaging. They should just want to have an opportunity to engage with their friends and explore the environment and use the materials that are available to them and the books and the manipulatives and really just enjoy their space.

From a teacher’s environment, the classroom environment should be intentional. So, obviously it’s important for children to have the opportunity to explore their environment. But behind the scenes teachers should be very well aware of where the children are in their development and how to help support their growth in those critical areas.

So, it really is sort of [that] the teachers are the master puppeteers behind the scenes in creating an environment where that play and exploration really helps support children’s development. And then they can, through gentle guidance, help encourage the children to try new things and to ask them open-ended questions and to encourage them to think, to problem solve, to learn new information and to guide them through that environment.

So, a great early-childhood classroom, again, feels open and fluid and just exciting and engaging for a young child. But teachers should have great intentionality about how they help design that space to best support the children’s development.


So, one thing that we certainly see is that children love to play. But one thing I’ve always wondered is, how much of that is just a natural instinct of children, versus, do we have to help enable children to play or teach them how to play? Maybe it’s an odd question.


No, I say it’s a natural instinct for children to play. If you even think about the youngest infants when they are exploring their feet or their hands or exploring their environment and a game of peekaboo with an adult who’s starting to engage them, those are early, early stages of play. And we see a pretty consistent progression of the way young children play through their earliest years from more solitary play to more social play. And that’s pretty common across children.

That said, there are certainly some children who may be a little bit more shy than others and may be a little bit more cautious in entering the group play environment with other children. And that’s where adult guidance can be so, so terribly important. So, yes, there is I think a very natural instinct to play. But then adults can certainly help support children at some critical milestones to learn how to withstand sort of that the opportunities for them to play with other children or new materials or test out new opportunities to play.


And one of the things you mentioned is about being intentional with play in an early-childhood setting. How has KinderCare added this element of intentional play to its curriculum to help children’s development?


So, our entire curriculum is really built around looking at sort of key developmental milestones for young children across all of the domains that are important in a child’s development, from, again, maybe their more traditional school readiness skills like language and literacy and numeracy to social-emotional development, motor development, physical development and wellness.

And what we did was, we looked at critical milestones of children’s development from their earliest days all the way through the time that they enter school. And once we identify those critical milestones we build our curriculum around activities that help support children’s growth and development along that continuum of scales.

So, we have different programs for children of different ages with a lot of flexibility, with an understanding that children can be of the same chronological age but very, very different developmental ages. And those activities are intentionally aligned around these important milestones of development. And so all of the activities within the early-childhood classroom are designed to support children’s growth in all these areas.

And there is also lots of open-ended opportunity for children to just to play outside and explore and share things with their friends. But there’s a very strong eye towards, what is it that children… what stages are children at? What’s the best thing we can do to help support them through that continuum of growth and development?


Putting yourself in the shoes of a teacher in their classroom with children that might be at different levels of development across those different domains, how do you manage the activities that you’re doing with the children to help you provide that challenging development opportunity, knowing that the children in the class that you’re in might be at different stages?


Honestly, I think some of the beauty of an early-childhood classroom is that variety and the differences that children bring to that. That’s a really important skill for children to be learning, is how to engage with children who may be at different levels of development than they are. And it’s really the skill of our teachers who can recognize where children are and do a little bit of sort of fine tuning on the activities or encourage [and] sit with individual children who may be playing and respond to them at the level that they are engaged with the materials in the classroom or with the other children in their classroom.

So, the curriculum is built to support a wide range of children within any one classroom because one three-year-old will look very, very different from another three-year-old. But then it really is that sort of skillful guidance of our teachers that helped support the children to test out the things, that stretches their skills just a little bit or gives an extra bolstering support to children who may not be quite at the same developmental level as some of their peers in the same classroom.


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and is a great way to think about it. So I assume that this has been a bit of an iterative process for KinderCare, continually improving the curriculum and setting the milestones. Have you had an opportunity or been able to confirm any results of how this system is helping to support children’s development over time?


Yes, thank you so much for asking that because that’s an interesting question. A lot of parents actually don’t really ask about, “What is it that you do to really give me confidence that my child is progressing as we all hoped they would in the classroom?”

So, one of the things that is really important to us in KinderCare is to make sure that we can give parents really good information about how the children are progressing. One of the things we do is, we definitely look at their progression across the key milestones, developmental milestones that are built in our curriculum. And we use that to give parents very specific feedback about their children.

But we also use a developmental screen in our centers, which is just a very quick observational instrument. It only takes a very short period of time and we use that to get a sense about where children are in their developmental growth. And we do that actually in the beginning of the school year. It’s great information to help our teachers better understand sort of where the children are in their own development. And then we do it later on towards the end of the school year in the late spring. And we can compare the growth of children in our program.

And what we have consistently seen over the years is that children in our program make better-than-expected growth on this developmental screen that is normed against children who are not in our program. So, we’re very proud to share that information with our families.

Another great finding that we have had year-over-year is that the longer children are with us, the better still they do. So, children who have been in our programs for more than a year show even better growth and are even slightly more ahead on some of these critical developmental milestones that are in this developmental screen than children who’ve been with us for less than a year.

So, we hold ourselves very accountable to that and we use it to sort of guide our instructional practice and to think about what is it we need to do better every day and every year that keep our curriculum the very best it can be for the children and the families we’re serving.


So, given that children within KinderCare programs are better prepared for a first grade relative to their peers based on this information, what’s your take away from that, as the chief academic officer, in terms of what that means and what’s next?


I think what it means, not just for me as chief academic officer but I think for everybody in the company – we have almost 30,000 educators – we’re so proud of what we do for the children that we serve. But the expectations for children change and the world gets increasingly complex. And we know that no matter what progress the children are making in our programs there’s always going to be new research or something we can do better or provide more professional development and training for our teachers to help them better understand children or better develop their skills.

So, I think one of the things we will never do is sort of rest on our laurels and think just because we’re doing a good job that we’re doing the very best job we can. Our goal is to sort of get better every day so we can help our children get better every day.


Wonderful. And Elanna you have a lot of experience in early-childhood education. Can you share some wisdom with some of our listeners who might be earlier in their career in early-childhood education? What advice would you provide to them as they set out on this journey, too, on a very important role in society?


Yes, honestly, it’s truly an honor to be able to share some perspective on that. I’d say the most important thing is [to] just love what you do and enjoy the moments. Children are just miraculous. And find a time in a classroom to step back and just watch them and watch them explore and learn.

And just enjoy being part of their families lives and sharing their incredible journey with them. There is so much joy in an early-childhood classroom and sometimes you’re so focused on the important work you do. Make sure you always take time to step back and reflect not only on how joyous it is but the incredible difference you’re making. You are changing children’s lives. You are changing the trajectory into their future.

And I certainly believe most early-childhood educators did not get the recognition they deserve for the incredibly important work they do. I hope they can find a way to feel as recognized and appreciated as they absolutely deserve to be because there is nothing more important you can do to give the child the best start in life.


I agree! Thanks so much for that great advice for our listeners. And Elanna if I’m listening to the Podcast and I would like to get in touch with you or send you a note or something, is there a social media handle that I can get in touch with you at, or some other means?


Sure you can reach us at, obviously. Or you can just contact me directly. So, I would love to continue the dialogue and if there’s anything I can do to provide any additional information or share any more experiences I’m just so excited to have an opportunity to talk a little bit about what we do with early-childhood educators. As I said, there’s nothing more rewarding and we can never have enough great people interested in supporting young children and their families.


Wonderful. And I noticed [that] you’re on LinkedIn, where I think a lot of our early-childhood educators should be. You can find Dr. Elanna Yalow on LinkedIn. Also I’ve got your Twitter handle here, it’s @DrYalow. Elanna, thank you so, so much for joining us today and sharing all this amazing wisdom and experience that you have in reiterating for us the importance of play in early-childhood education and how we can think about applying that in our classrooms. It’s been great having you on the show.


Ron, thanks so much, and thanks so much to all the listeners. I so appreciate your time.

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!