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16 Things Kids Learn in Preschool

Ever wondered what your kids are really learning at preschool when it seems like they’re just playing all day? The good news is that if it seems like they’re “just playing” then the school is doing something right!

Children learn everything through play and the early years are the most important in their overall development.

I spent several years teaching and would like to share, in a nutshell, what every child should learn in preschool and how preschool contributes to a child’s education.

Learning during the first 6 years is about building skills through play.

This does not only apply to babies and toddlers. Preschoolers learn best through play, when using their whole body and engaging the senses.

What do Kids Learn in Preschool?

You may be wondering what a preschool curriculum should include or what subjects are focused on. This is not really that important. There is no curriculum-in-a-box, but rather a set of abilities and skills a preschooler should develop.

Some preschools choose to use set themes around which to plan play activities; others let themes develop naturally (learning about caterpillars when a child finds one in the garden). 

A good quality preschool will give your children a well-rounded education through a balance of free play and well-planned, adult-guided play.

What should a child know by the end of preschool?

This is a breakdown of what is taught in preschool. If you’d like to work on some of these skills at home, I’ve sprinkled lots of play ideas throughout. Don’t underestimate how much your children learn from you.

Parents are a child’s primary educators!

1. Gross Motor Skills

Gross Motor Skills

Physical development starts with developing gross motor skills – the large muscles of the body. At preschool, your children will be moving nonstop. Movement is the most important skill to develop first in the early years as it is necessary for all other learning.

Children must develop skills such as strength, hand-eye coordination and agility. They also need to develop two important senses – vestibular and proprioception – responsible for balance and body awareness.

Movement is important as it stimulates learning, improves concentration, gives the brain oxygen and works both sides of the brain. Good gross motor skills also lay the foundation for fine motor skills. 

Some examples of gross motor activities:

  • Throwing and catching balls
  • Playing hopscotch
  • Singing action songs
  • Playing with bean bags
  • Balancing on beams
  • Climbing and hanging
  • Skipping and hopping
  • Running and chasing games

2. Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor coordination – the development of the small muscles – is a prerequisite to learning how to write and is necessary for performing everyday tasks.

In preschool, children spend a large portion of their day working on these skills.

Fine motor skills are developed by all kinds of art activities, such as:

They can also be developed with other fine motor activities such as:

Developing a pencil grip and learning to form letters starts with all these kinds of fine motor activities.

3. Early Mathematical Concepts

Preschool is where the foundations for mathematics begins. No child ever learns maths in the first grade. The type of maths they learn just becomes more formal.

In the preschool grades children learn:

  • Rote counting (such as counting up to 20)
  • One-to-one correspondence (reliably counting objects)
  • Classifying
  • Sorting
  • Length
  • Capacity
  • Weight
  • Area
  • Temperature
  • Time
  • Space
  • Shape 

These concepts are learned while having pure fun – in the sandpit, while baking, playing with water, building with blocks and even while tidying up

Child playing with blocks

4. Problem Solving

Problem solving is an important life skill and one that must be developed early on. Learning this in preschool also helps children with mathematical problem solving during the formal grades.

Problem-solving skills are built during simple activities such as:

5. Language and Vocabulary

Preschool is a language-rich environment where children’s vocabulary expands dramatically. 

They learn sentence construction, the use of grammar and tenses, the meaning of words, etc.

Language and vocabulary are learnt throughout the day while:

  • Having circle time discussions
  • Singing rhymes and songs
  • Playing games
  • Playing alone and with friends
  • Learning about a theme
  • Playing with toys, equipment and other materials
  • Listening to stories

6. Pre-Writing Skills

Pre-Writing Skills

Writing starts with developing important pre-writing skills through play and art activities. These four skills are specific requirements for learning to write and will be the focus during preschool:

  • Pencil grip
  • Crossing the midline 
  • Learning about letters and their formation (though play, not formal writing)
  • Learning to form patterns (for example drawing big waves or zig-zags which mimic the shapes found in letters)

7. Listening Skills

Listening is one of the most important and often under-developed skills. This should be a main focus during preschool. 

Children learn to listen by doing these kinds of activities:

Although your children are learning to listen at school, it is highly recommended to focus on these skills at home too. Children with good listening skills are much more successful and capable at school. Here are some listening games you can play at home. 

8. Musical Skills

Music in preschool is about so much more than just developing musical skills. Music develops children’s:

9. Visual Perceptual Skills

Visual and auditory perception are the two main building blocks of learning to read. 

Children develop their visual perception during preschool with the following types of activities:

  • Activities that teach about shapes and colours
  • Patterning activities
  • Puzzles and tangrams
  • Card games
  • Memory games

10. Auditory Perceptual Skills

Auditory perception is the brain’s ability to make sense of what the ears hear. It is vital for being able to learn sounds for reading. These kinds of activities develop auditory perception:

  • Reciting rhymes and poems
  • Playing with instruments
  • Playing sound games
  • Playing word games

11. Pre-Reading Skills

During preschool children develop all the necessary pre-reading skills to set them up for learning to read formally.

Learning to read requires developing sound knowledge (auditory perception) and symbol knowledge (visual perception), as explained above. 

These are the five main pre-reading skills:

  • Print awareness – understanding that written words convey meaning
  • Motivation to read – exposure to books which ignites a desire to read
  • Listening comprehension – the ability to understand what is heard
  • Letter knowledge – informal exposure to letters and their sounds during play
  • Phonological awareness – being able to hear sounds in words (beginning, middle and end sounds)

Children are exposed to these kinds of activities:

  • Playing rhyming games 
  • Playing word games 
  • Games involving hearing syllables
  • Playing listening games 
  • Following instructions (single and multiple instructions)

12. Memory

At school, children also strengthen their memory, a skill they will rely on for learning throughout their education.

These are the kinds of games that are often played in preschool classes:

  • Memory card games (get my printable set)
  • Circle memory games 
    • I went to the shops and I bought a… – each child has a turn to add an item, but must first recall the entire list before adding their item
    • Categories – pick a category (e.g. fruits) and go around the circle asking each child to add a name of one fruit. No fruits may be said twice so children must remember which ones were already mentioned 

13. Early Science Concepts

As children explore and interact with their environment and nature, they also learn about early science concepts

A great example is learning about physics by discovering the properties of water during water play:

  • Water makes sand heavier
  • Water influences the texture of sand 
  • Water falls through space (e.g. through a sieve)
  • Air (wind) moves water 
  • Water is a liquid because it pours
  • Water takes the shape of the container it is poured into

14. Social Skills

Where better to learn social skills than in preschool? Children are surrounded by friends and adults and they learn to interact appropriately with others.

Throughout the day children learn about:

  • Taking turns
  • Sharing 
  • Considering the opinions of others
  • Showing empathy
  • Cooperating and negotiating
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Leading and following
  • Creating and following rules in games to encourage positive interaction

15. Creative Expression

Preschool is where a child’s creative spark can really be ignited. There are many opportunities throughout the school day where children develop their creative expression:

  • During art activities – painting, constructing, drawing
  • Musical activities – dancing, singing and playing with instruments
  • Playing with construction toys
  • Drama and puppet play
  • Telling stories
  • Fantasy/ dress-up play
  • Outdoor play (e.g. building forts)

16. Independence

Last but perhaps most importantly, the greatest takeaway for young children at preschool is their growing independence.

Children learn to take care of themselves, show a sense of responsibility and a desire to be competent.

There are endless opportunities for this:

  • Regular tidy-up times
  • Taking accountability for actions
  • Looking after belongings (shoes, bags, books, etc.)
  • Self-care (going to the bathroom, washing hands, etc.)
  • Making choices throughout the day (during free play or activities with choice)

And there you have it! That is certainly not a complete list as your kids are learning so much but that it more-or-less a summary of what skills a preschooler should have.

Here is a detailed school readiness checklist if you’d like to delve into each developmental area more.

Be wary of preschools that focus on academic skills. This is developmentally inappropriate and, as you can see from the list above, play is important during the early years.

Academic learning at a young age is harmful in the long term and takes away from important learning. Choose your child’s preschool wisely!

Would you like a year of done-for-you, ten-minute activities to teach your 3-5-year-old through play? Get your copy of the Learning Through Play Activity Pack for only $27.

Activity Pack for preschoolers

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L. Fisher

Tuesday 13th of October 2020

So comprehensive, this is really useful Tanja. I’m a volunteer primary teacher just starting to teach ESL in a very small nursery and my training in teaching pre-school was many, many years ago now, so thank you for reminding me of all the reasons why we should be delivering a well-planned play-based pre-school curriculum over teaching formal skills before the children are developmentally ready.

Tanja Mcilroy

Thursday 15th of October 2020

You're welcome! I'm glad you found this resource useful.

Kristien Bahumi

Wednesday 30th of September 2020

I am going to use it in my class ,this is very helpfull infomation

Marilyn Pivotte

Tuesday 8th of September 2020

Thanks, This will be very helpful to me

Tanja Mcilroy

Tuesday 8th of September 2020

You're welcome Marilyn!


Tuesday 21st of July 2020

Thank you very much!

Tanja Mcilroy

Wednesday 22nd of July 2020

You're very welcome Ismail!


Sunday 19th of July 2020

Amazing information, absolutely useful!

Tanja Mcilroy

Tuesday 21st of July 2020

Thank you Isabella!

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