preschoolers playingPlaying dress-up, finger painting, pushing trains around a track—preschool looks like fun. But you may wonder: will my child learn anything? And in today’s tough economic climate, is it worth the expense? Most definitely, according to early-childhood experts, who say play is the ideal way for 3- and 4-year-old children to develop essential academic and social skills.

Here are some important lessons young children will absorb under the guise of play. 

How to Behave at School

The typical preschool classroom can seem chaotic, given all the different play centers and activities. Appearances to the contrary, though, rules and routines are in place that teach children how to conduct themselves in a school setting and be part of a group.

“Preschoolers learn how to postpone acting on their first impulse, which is so essential,” says Lilian G. Katz, PhD, professor emerita and co-director of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting (CEEP) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They begin to understand the concept of taking turns, so everyday tasks like lining up to go outside and sitting in a circle for story time become second nature.

How to Ask for Help

By age 3 or 4, most children can ask you to pour them a glass of milk or help them reach a toy on a shelf. But what happens at school if a shoe becomes untied or they don’t get to the bathroom in time?

“In preschool, children have the opportunity to acquire and polish the social skills they’ll need to interact successfully with adults, particularly adults they don’t know,” says Katz. Sure, they’ll likely have to elbow past others clamoring for the teacher’s attention, but that will teach them to assert themselves. Research shows a positive experience with a first teacher helps children gain confidence and form productive relationships with future teachers and other adults.

How to Explore

Endless opportunity exists during playtime for preschoolers to learn about the world around them. “The optimum environment is both fun and educational, and the astute teacher sets out to create just that,” says Stella Leonard, director of the Palm Desert Community Presbyterian Church Preschool and Kindergarten in Palm Desert, CA. “It’s what play-based learning is all about. Measuring cups should always be within reach in the sandbox—that’s an elementary math lesson right there. And introduction to science happens when children are encouraged to follow the flight path of a butterfly who happens upon the playground, or to study a ladybug up close.”

Although the setting may seem relatively unstructured, studies show that children learn best when teachers order the environment to provide kids with interesting materials to play with and new ideas to explore. The bonus is that nurturing a child’s natural curiosity will foster a  love affair with learning that will last a lifetime.

Asking, “What are you doing?” will win more friends than saying,  “I can dig a deeper hole than that.” 

How to Make Friends

You probably set up play dates for your youngster, but preschool lets him forge friendships on his own and settle differences without the help of a parent or caregiver.

“Preschoolers learn how to approach other children and be comfortable around them,” says Katz. As time passes, they’ll figure out how to start a conversation by focusing on the other person, so initial interactions become less a case of one-upmanship. Asking, “What are you doing?” will win him more friends than saying, “I can dig a deeper hole than that,” but children only gain this social savvy through trial and error amongst their peers. Setting the stage for social competence at a young age benefits kids as they get older and must work on school projects in pairs or groups.

How to be Independent

In the interest of time management, many parents tend to help their 3- or 4-year olds with the small tasks of everyday life, such as fastening buttons and zippers or opening a packaged snack. But preschool teachers, who may need to get 12 or more kids quickly into their coats and onto the playground, encourage students to take more  responsibility.

“Children learn how to put on their own jackets, open their own juice boxes, and remember to wash their hands after going to the bathroom,” says Leonard.

Early practice in self-care skills will boost your child’s confidence in other settings, such as a visit to a friend’s house where you’re not around to intercede. An added bonus: it will make your life easier, too!

June Allan Corrigan is a freelance writer who writes for national parenting magazines and regularly contributes education articles to and PTO Today.

What other lessons have your children learned under the guise of play?