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16 Most Important Things Kids Learn in Preschool

Do you ever wonder what your kids are learning at preschool when it seems like they’re just playing all day? The good news is that if they’re playing, they’re learning!

Learning during the first 6 years is about building skills through play. Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child” and many theorists such as Piaget and Vygotsky agreed on its importance. [source]

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

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

So, what do kids learn in preschool? Here are 16 of the most important foundational skills children develop in the preschool years.

1. 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 kicking soccer balls on playground

Children must develop skills such as core 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

Gross motor skills can be developed through many indoor and outdoor activities.

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 through creative arts and play.

Children’s fine motor skills are developed through all kinds of art activities, such as:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Cutting
  • Pasting
  • Constructing with cardboard boxes and waste materials

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 begin. 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, with hands-on activities – in the sandpit, while baking, playing with water, building with blocks and even while tidying up.

Child playing with blocks

4. Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

Developing thinking skills and problem-solving skills abilities is a crucial part of early childhood education. Learning this in preschool also helps children with mathematical problem solving during the formal grades.

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

5. Language and Vocabulary

Preschool is a language-rich environment where children’s vocabulary expands dramatically. Language development is a key part of a child’s cognitive development.

Language skills include learning 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 nursery rhymes and songs.
  • Playing games.
  • Playing alone and with friends.
  • Learning about a theme.
  • Playing with toys, equipment and other materials.
  • Listening to stories.
  • Telling short stories.

6. 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 (through play, not formal writing)
  • Learning to form patterns (for example drawing big waves or zig-zags which mimic the shapes found in letters)
Girls huddled together, writing something

7. Listening Skills

Listening is one of the most important and often underdeveloped skills. This should be a focus area 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 nursery rhymes and poems
  • Playing with instruments
  • Playing sound games
  • Playing word games

11. Pre-Reading Skills

During preschool children develop early literacy skills, which include 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 that 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 a printable set here).
  • Circle memory games such as “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.
  • List games such as “Categories“. Pick a category (e.g. fruits) and go around the circle asking each child to add the 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

Child playing in sandpit with buckets

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-Emotional Skills

Social and emotional growth is as crucial to child development as physical and intellectual growth are and should form part of a preschool curriculum.

Social development is about learning communication skills, building healthy relationships and interacting appropriately with others.

Through daily social interactions, children learn important social skills such as:

  • 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

Emotional development includes building skills such as:

  • Self-awareness
  • Expressing emotions in a healthy way
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Empathy

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 and show a sense of responsibility and a desire to be competent.

There are endless opportunities for teaching kids independence:

  • 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 is more or less a summary of what skills a preschooler should have and what good preschools should be focusing on.

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

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Gilbert Herithier

Friday 22nd of July 2022

Hello, whaou, I've never thought that was what my children should learn or are learning at their preschool, and I've never found important sending my children through the preschool I've been seeing it, as a waste of time and money, now that I know these things I'm considering sending them at preschool, and I'll make sure to enforce all of the things you've been spoken through this post.

Thank you so much.

Tanja Mcilroy

Tuesday 26th of July 2022

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

Teacher Gemma-Lyn

Monday 11th of April 2022

Thank you so much for your very useful and helpful website now I can start next week my tutorial lessons for my pre-kinder student. For me, I think it's complete for my tutee to study all that I will teach him as a Review so he can cross being a Kindergarten student. Getting him ready for the next grade! :-) <3

Tanja Mcilroy

Tuesday 12th of April 2022

I'm glad you found this website helpful!


Sunday 6th of March 2022

Amazing information I got from this

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

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