Nurturing Learning in Three- and Four-Year-Olds: Play and Music

Play is self-directed, pleasurable, internally motivated activity that children control. How caregivers support it depends on the age of the child.

Topic: Play and Music


Play is the central activity of young children. Whether it’s an infant playing with her toes or a five-year-old playing superhero, play is the main way that young children explore, interact with, and enjoy the world around them. Play is self-directed, pleasurable, internally motivated activity that children control. It’s where their inborn curiosity and creativity shine and where they can practice problem-solving, flexible thinking, and persistence. In this Nurturing Learning, we’ll look at what that play looks like in three- and four-year-olds (threes and fours) and how caregivers can support it.

Experimenting and Inventing Through Play

What children are doing:
Play encourages experimentation. There’s little fear of what will happen if an idea doesn’t work, so preschoolers are more willing to try different ideas. During the preschool years, children are learning a lot about their physical world (how things work) and their social world (how people work). Play provides the perfect place for preschoolers to try out their theories of both as they make observations, make changes, and notice the outcome. When children are given lots of open-ended materials and time to experiment, they can show amazing creativity and inventiveness in combining or using those materials in new ways.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Loose parts: natural materials (logs, large rocks) and found materials (used tires, cardboard boxes) that children can use outdoors in creative ways.
  • Materials and tools for constructing both small and large structures.
  • Books that invite creativity and innovation ( Harold and the Purple Crayon; Not a Box; Beautiful Oops!).

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Don’t confine children’s play with certain materials to one designated area; allowing children to combine different types of materials can foster some very innovative play (for example, children combine large blocks and pretend play props to create a castle scenario and script).
  • Ask questions that encourage innovation and creativity: “What else can you do with that?” “Where else could you look for something that might work?” “Is there something else you could try?”
  • Fear of failing and a need for perfection tends to come from adults, not from anything inborn in children; be careful not to dampen children’s willingness to experiment by modeling negative reactions to adults’ own mistakes or unsuccessful attempts.

Imagining in Play

What children are doing:
Children’s imaginations explode during their preschool years, and nowhere are their imaginations more evident than in pretend play. Between their third and
fifth birthdays, children’s pretending becomes more complex, with more roles, more elaborate story lines, and themes that can go on for days and even weeks! Their scripts often incorporate elements of fear and danger, separation or death, harming and rescuing, and sticking together to conquer challenges. The familiar themes of home and family now share the stage with adventure themes. But dramatic play is not the only place where imaginative story lines are developed. Building materials (Legos™, blocks, etc.), toy vehicles, small animal and people figures, and even tricycles are also used by preschoolers to create elaborate stories.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Small figures, toys, and puppets that encourage pretend scenarios and storytelling.
  • Children’s books or stories that are fairly easy for children to act out.
  • Raw materials (cardboard boxes and tubes, boards, paper) and art materials that children can use to build and decorate set pieces for their pretend play.
  • Theme-based pretend play set-ups, based on children’s current interest (veterinarian’s office, pizza restaurant, car maintenance shop).

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Ask children to imagine alternative endings for a familiar children’s book.
  • Suggest that children act out their favorite stories.
  • Encourage children to suggest, find, and create additional props for their dramatic play.
  • Now and then, take dramatic play materials outdoors.

Learning to Play Within Rules

What children are doing:
As preschoolers’ play becomes more social, children begin to think more about organized play – play that has rules. Sometimes rules are introduced very informally, as a way to clarify the script for everyone (“You guys can’t come over here because there’s a river right there, so you have to stay there and we have to stay over here.”). Rough and tumble play usually provides an opportunity for children to think about rules that will keep everyone safe, with an adult’s coaching. Preschoolers are also becoming familiar with games with predetermined rules: table games, teacher-lead group games, etc. All of these experiences provide preschoolers with practice in using their developing self-control.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Simple, age-appropriate table games.
  • Cooperative group games that help children practice simple rules: parachute play, simple ball games, Freeze (children dance during the music, freeze when it stops), etc.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Remember that the ability to inhibit or stop a physical response is just beginning to develop in three-year-olds; the more excited or upset they are, the less able they are to wait their turn or follow other rules that require them to control their impulses.
  • Coach children through the process of developing their own rules for play when the need arises. Write down the rules that they decide on so children can refer back to them.

Representing What They Know in Play

What children are doing:
As much as adults would like to, they can’t read children’s minds to find out what they are thinking and how they understand the world around them. However, through play, children show their caregivers! In play, children reconstruct what they believe to be true about how things and people work. Through play they deal with the questions that trouble them – the things they want to understand but don’t. Through their play choices, adults can learn what they are interested in and curious about. With careful watching of and listening to children’s play, adults are given an outline for planning a curriculum of meaningful learning experiences.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Substantial chunks of time for children’s self-directed play in which they can freely choose among a variety of materials, toys, and equipment.
  • Plenty of space and materials to reduce conflicts and frustrations that limit children’s play.
  • Opportunities to play outdoors as well as indoors; an ample supply of toys and materials for outdoor play that encourages a variety of play types (dramatic play, play with art materials) and themes.
What caregivers can say and do:
  • Make time during children’s free-play time to intentionally watch, listen, and be curious. Be intentional about noticing each child’s play over the course of a week. Record observations of children’s play: what their words and actions tell about the knowledge they are constructing about the world; the concepts or questions that are central to their play; and the emotions that they are expressing during play.
  • Take photos and videos of children at play; invite them to talk about their play as they see themselves and reflect back on what they were doing.
  • Follow the interests of children; when observations of their play tell about an interest or question that children are thinking about, plan experiences that allow them to explore that interest/question in greater depth.
  • Invite children to contribute their ideas as future activities and projects are planned.

Becoming a Musician

What children are doing:
Enjoying and playing with music moves to whole new levels during the preschool years. Preschoolers develop the ability to repeat patterns of rhythm and remember whole songs. As they develop greater muscle control and coordination, they can better synchronize their body movements to music (marching, dancing, drumming, or clapping to a beat). They can also notice more subtle differences among musical tones and rhythms and like to experiment with creating both. Preschoolers can also be heard singing to themselves, either actual songs or ones they are making up on the spot, purely for the enjoyment of it.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Instruments that produce a variety of tones. Consider introducing actual musical instruments, such as different sizes and kinds of drums, or assembling objects that produce different tones when struck, such as a collection of glasses with different levels of water.
  • Rhythm instruments that children can play while singing or listening to music.
  • Recorded music with a wide variety of instruments and vocal styles.
  • Factual books about musical instruments.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Encourage children to notice differences in the sounds produced by recorded voices and instruments; encourage them to recreate the sounds they hear.
  • Seek out opportunities for children to see musicians (professional or amateur) playing live, either by attending a performance or by inviting a musician to visit.
  • Offer children the opportunity to touch, hold, examine, and try to play different instruments, if at all possible.

Keep in mind

Because play is enjoyable, self-motivated, and very interesting to children, it’s the context in which adults see children’s highest levels of skill and knowledge. For example, on the playground climber is where caregivers see their best large motor performance. During dramatic play is where adults hear each child’s best attempts at communication. Drawing a picture for her mom and writing a note is where caregivers see a child’s highest level of fine motor and literacy skills. Because self-directed play is where children use their highest level of knowledge and skill, it’s the best context for assessment. Observing and recording what children know and are able to do during play gives the most accurate picture of their level of achievement in every area of development.







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Nurturing Learning in Three- and Four-Year-Olds: Play and Music

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