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What is a play-based preschool?

The main features and benefits of play-based preschools

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Most preschools aim to prepare your child for the school years, by teaching them social and academic skills. While preschools sometimes are sometimes similar to nursery schools, daycares, and even kindergartens, they often have a different approach than these other options.

Play-based preschools and daycares

Play-based preschools (also called "play school") are based on the belief that young children learn best through play. They offer mostly open-ended activities, with minimal structure. They aim to develop your child’s social and emotional skills, and to promote a love of learning in an interactive environment.

Play-based preschools, like other preschool programs, tend to be child-centred. They mostly let children choose their own activities. They rarely follow a set curriculum, though they usually have a daily schedule.

In these preschools, classrooms are set up to promote interaction, socialization, problem solving, and discovery learning. Often, there are different stations in class where kids can engage in a wide range of activities. For instance there might be a kitchen, building, reading, and sensory area. This allows kids to pursue their interests and learn and interact in different ways.

Play-based preschools typically don’t offer much direct instruction. Teachers rarely, if ever, provide whole-class lectures. They also don’t normally follow a strict curriculum, at least compared to academic preschools. To learn about the differences between play-based and academic preschools, read our guide.

That said, children can learn important skills in a play-based preschool, including social, emotional, and problem-solving skills. They also may acquire knowledge in some core subjects, such as math, reading, and writing (among others).

As Maureen Myers, executive director at Sprouts, a preschool in Toronto, Ontario, says "We don't sit down and teach by rote or repetition, but the ideas and concepts of letter recognition, language, math, and sciences are learned by very hands-on activities."

Play-based preschools normally have lots of indoor and outdoor physical activity. Boys and girls run around a lot, dance, play hide-and-seek, sports, and other fun activities. They might also play board games and do jigsaw puzzles. And they'll likely do lots of arts and crafts, such as drawing, painting, and colouring.

An example of a play-based preschool is Waldorf. While Waldorf preschools provide some focused work time, they also allot plenty of time for free play and play-based learning. They also place a big focus on pretend or imaginative play.

Play-based preschools have some appealing features.

Benefits of play-based preschools

  • Young children sometimes learn well through play.
  • An important part of school readiness is knowing how to interact with other kids and adults.
  • Children love to have fun. When learning is “disguised” in playing and in games, it can be challenging and fun.
  • These programs can increase feelings of independence, self-confidence, and security with adults and other kids, and in a variety of situations.
  • Learning and understanding the world through play provides an opportunity to explore, experiment, discover, and create.
  • Play-based programs promote self-expression and offer constructive outlets for emotions.
  • These programs often have flexible schedules. They also sometimes offer before- after-school care, to help meet your family’s needs.
  • They are often quite affordable.

To learn about the differences between play-based and academic preschools, read our guide. You can also read articles comparing different preschool approaches: Montessori to WaldorfMontessori to Reggio EmiliaWaldorf to Reggio EmiliaMontessori to academic, and Montessori to play-based preschools. If you want to compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub.


Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)


Answers to the question “What is a play-based preschool?” from school officials

“There have been numerous studies that conclude young students learn best through play. Children develop a good sense of self in an environment rich in language, play experiences, music, and gross motor development. They learn independence by developing their self-help skills and self-regulation. The many social interactions in a preschool environment help develop important emotional skills and foster a child’s larger perspective of the world.

Play is what makes learning meaningful and fun. A vibrant and successful classroom is rooted in daily activities that develop critical thinking through problem solving as children explore, predict, and investigate elements in the world around them.” Corina Gill, assistant head of the lower school at Bayview Glen Independent School, in Toronto, Ontario

“Play is how children learn—it is inquiry for young children. Learning in preschool is through play. There should be large blocks of uninterrupted time for children to play in the preschool’s schedule. There is a spectrum of play. Some play can be directed by the teacher with specific learning expectations in mind. Some play should be representative of the children’s own interests, with limited teacher interference. Some play should be completely unstructured and freely directed by the students.

Albert Einstein said that ‘play is the highest form of research.’ Young children also benefit from small increments of teacher-directed instruction. A balance of play-based learning and teacher-directed activities is ideal, with the emphasis being on play. ” Vanessa Sjerven, teacher at Elmwood School (the early years program), in Ottawa, Ontario

“We emphasize the importance of child-initiated play. Children play with natural, open-ended materials. A safe, secure, and gentle space is created where they can explore and evolve with their play, with as little interference from the teacher as possible. The teacher will only interfere when necessary in the free play of the child. In this way, the child is the master of their own activity, promoting feelings of confidence and trust in their own abilities.” Jennifer Deathe, head of admission at Waldorf Academy, a Waldorf school, in Toronto, Ontario

“Children learn more in one day of play than many of us learn in a week of hard work. When presented with the proper, enriched environment and opportunities for learning, your child can flourish. We do not expect any child to learn classroom material/content in a standard, regimented form. Our educators are there to help guide and lead your child to his or her best sense of self.” Paula Carrasco, director of Kendelhurst Academy, in Mississauga, Ontario

“My point of view: children can play and learn in preschool. One does not preclude the other. Play is an integral part of learning ‘academics.’ Through play, children investigate the world through their inquisitiveness and sense of discovery and develop a positive self-image. They also develop intellectually, socially, physically, emotionally, and acquire self-management skills.” Nora Ibrahim, preschool teacher and IB PYP (Primary Years Program) coordinator at Académie de la Capitale, in Ottawa, Ontario




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List of What is a play-based preschool?

    School NameTypePaceCost

    The Giles School (est. 1989)  

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • PS to 8 Coed
    • Day school (170 students)
    The Giles School is a French immersion private school in Toronto for children age 2 (Pre-K) to Grade 8. Open Admissions through Grade 1, small classes, and Mandarin introduced as a third language in Grade 1. [View profile]
    • Liberal Arts
    Accelerated$12,200 to $20,300Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Coed Day12200

    Alexander von Humboldt German International School (est. 1980)  

    • Baie d'Urfé, Montreal, Quebec
    • PS to 12 Coed
    • Day school (300 students)
    Alexander von Humboldt German International School Montreal offers an internationally recognized education from pre-K to Grade 12 with an enrollment of about 300 day students. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    Standard-enriched$4,250 to $9,850Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Coed Day4250

    Olivet School (est. 1893)  

    • Etobicoke, Ontario
    • PS to 5 Coed
    • Day school
    Founded in 1893, Olivet School is a Christian private school in Etobicoke, offering PS-Gr5. Olivet School combines quality teaching with individual attention to help each child achieve their personal potential. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    Standard-enriched$605 to $10,150Preschool Kindergarten Elementary Coed Day605

    Lycée Français de Toronto (est. 1995)  

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • PS to 12 Coed
    • Day school (520 students)
    Lycée Français de Toronto is a French school that offers programs from nursery to grade 12. Its average class size is 17 students. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    Standard-enriched$14,683 to $16,935Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Coed Day14683

    British Columbia Christian Academy (est. 1992)  

    • Port Coquitlam, British Columbia
    • NS to 12 Coed
    • Day school (325 students)
    BC Christian Academy offers Christian education from Preschool to Grade 12. Our dedication to academic excellence, strong Christian and moral values and a community built on compassion equip our students for the future. [View profile]
    • Progressive
    Standard-enriched$3,800 to $14,750Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Coed Day Homestay3800

    Magnificent Minds (est. 2011)  

    • North York, Ontario
    • PS to 8 Coed
    • Day school
    Magnificent Minds caters to learners whose needs are not being met in traditional school environments, pursuing academic excellence, and individual greatness. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    Student-paced$16,000 to $21,400Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Coed Day16000

    Bayview Glen - Whole Child. Whole Life. Whole World. (est. 1962)  

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • PS to 12 Coed
    • Day school (1050 students)
    Bayview Glen is a traditional co-ed day school in Toronto, Ontario from Preschool (age 2) to Grade 12, a global member of Round Square and offers Advanced Placement programme. Tuition ranges from $16,995 to $24,000. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    Accelerated$16,995 to $24,000Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Coed Day16995

    French 4 Tots (est. 2014)  

    • Pickering, Ontario
    • PS to K Coed
    • Day school
    F4T Academy offers an all day French preschool and Kindergarten program in Durham Region. [View profile]
      Standard-enriched$5,200 to $11,950Preschool Kindergarten Coed Day5200

      St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School (est. 1891)  

      • Oakville, Ontario
      • PS to 12 Girls
      • Day school (550 students)
      Oakville's SMLS continues to be a premier independent school for girls Preschool to Graduating Year since 1891. "Millie" graduates take on the world with confidence and the knowledge that they can do anything. [View profile]
      • Progressive
      • Reggio Emilia
      Standard-enriched$9,000 to $26,300Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Girls Day9000

      Mulgrave School (est. 1993)  

      • West Vancouver, British Columbia
      • PS to 12 Coed
      • Day school (900 students)
      Mulgrave School offers programmes from Preschool to Grade 12 in West Vancouver. Its average class size is 20 students with teacher to student ratios of 1:8. [View profile]
      • Progressive
      • International Baccalaureate
      Accelerated$17,195 to $21,370Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Coed Day17195

      Queen Margaret's School (est. 1921)  

      • Duncan, British Columbia
      • PS to 12 Girls/Coed
      • Day school (254 students)
      • Boarding school (94 students)
      Queen Margaret's School is an independent day/boarding Senior School for girls in Grades 8-12 and co-ed Junior School from Preschool to Grade 7 in Duncan, BC. [View profile]
      • Traditional
      Standard-enriched$5,325 to $53,600Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Girls Coed Boarding Day5325

      Kelowna Christian School (est. 1978)  

      • Kelowna, British Columbia
      • PS to 12 Coed
      • Day school (750 students)
      Established in 1978, our passion is to provide families with transformative, excellent education that equips and inspires students to be disciples who are world changers that love and serve God and others. [View profile]
      • Progressive
      Standard-enriched$3,600 to $6,500Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Coed Day3600

      Hitherfield School (est. 1991)  

      • Milton-Campbellville, Ontario
      • PS to 8 Coed
      • Day school (100 students)
      Hitherfield School offers programs from pre-school to grade 8. With an average class size of 14 students, we offer an excellent academic program along with a multitude of outdoor activities. [View profile]
      • Traditional
      Standard-enriched$11,250 to $14,250Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Coed Day11250

      Fern Hill School - Ottawa (est. 1981)  

      • Ottawa, Ontario
      • PS to 8 Coed
      • Day school (180 students)
      Ottawa’s Fern Hill School offers Preschool, Kindergarten and Elementary Grades, including extended French. Tuition starts at $2,950. [View profile]
      • Traditional
      Standard-enriched$3,250 to $14,800Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Coed Day9999999999

      The Oakville Academy for the Arts (est. 2003)  

      • Oakville, Ontario
      • PS to SK Coed
      • Day school
      Voted Oakville's Best Preschool, The Oakville Academy School for the Arts offers Preschool and Kindergarten classes in an arts-enriched learning environment. [View profile]
        Student-paced$4,899 to $14,999Preschool Kindergarten Coed Day9999999999

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