Planning For Play: Lesson Plans in a Child Led Preschool

I shared last week that the school where I work fully believes in the concept of play-based, child-led education. To the extent that we teachers are required to document what we do at the end of each day, rather than turn in lesson plans before hand. The supporting idea is that if we are truly “child led” then lesson plans are pointless because we’re following the children’s lead every day anyway. I’m totally with that. In fact, I used to feel kind of stupid writing meticulous lesson plans that I knew I probably wouldn’t follow through on.

The thing is, this method relies solely on a good environment and concept development conversations. One play scenario can go down a hundred different learning rabbit holes depending on what the teacher says and does. For example, picture a child building a tower using small colored blocks. He excitedly calls the teacher over to see.

As a teacher I could respond with, “Wow! How many blocks did you use to build that tower?” We’re developing number sense.

Or I could ask, “How tall is that tower?” Now we’re exploring measurement.

“What is this piece that sticks out for? It’s a canon! Oh, I can’t remember what letter that starts with. Do you?” Now we’re into symbolic thinking, pretend play, and literacy.

Say the tower falls over as the child is building. “I wonder why those blocks fell down!” We’re talking science and engineering.

I could go on, but you see my point. It is like teacher/blogger Misha, from Without Windows, explained to me, “… in a child led environment, the child controls the lens, but the teacher controls the content”.

Yes, a teacher can help children explore all the concepts they need to know through the environment and curriculum development, but there is a heck of a lot of content! How is a teacher supposed to keep track of what has and hasn’t been explored? Art and Literacy are fun, so I do those all the time without even thinking. Life science is a breeze when we spend so much time outside. But what about everything else? It’s not fair to the kids to focus only on what I enjoy. That’s where the planning comes in.

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks figuring out a system that helps me focus on what children need to know without dominating them. The result so far is surprisingly simple, but I find that simple is usually better.

I have assigned myself a daily emphasis for parts of the curriculum that I believe to be especially important. It is not a theme for the kids! They don’t even know my about my cunningly hidden planning (Mwahahaha!). This is simply the content which I try to present through the kid’s lense. My schedule is as follows:

Mon. – Social/Emotional

Tues – Literacy

Wed – Math

Thurs – The Arts

Fri – Science

It’s not strict, and I don’t stick exclusively to the daily emphasis. If the kids are super focused on figuring out who’s tallest on literacy Tuesday, I’m going to follow them wholeheartedly down that rabbit hole. In fact, I still set up materials at the centers and tables that lend themselves toward each area every day. The plan is more of a guideline to help me ensure I’m providing exposure to all of the basics throughout the week. It also helps me focus my observations, so that I am being sure to observe the many ways children develop and not just focusing on a particular strength or weakness.

I made a weekly planning sheet for myself that covers each developmental domain plus some others I think are important: Social/Emotional, Language/Literacy, Math, Science, Gross Motor, Fine Motor, Sensory, and The Arts. I thought about putting Cognitive on there, but I feel like that development is something that happens as the others develop and as children face daily problems. It’s not something that I would normally consciously plan. If you do, I’d love to hear about it!

For each domain, I write down broad learning goals and ways I might incorporate them during the week. For example, in literacy for next week I’ve planned to read, “The D Book”, set up a phonics/alphabet matching game at one of the tables, and then I have some ideas for how I could bring up literacy concepts at the sensory, car, and block areas. I also made a note about adding some literacy materials to the pretend area. I might not get to use all of it, but at least I’m ready and I have some idea of the content I want to introduce.

Domains that aren’t assigned a day are things I incorporate every day into the environment. I always have at least one sensory and at least one fine motor experience set up inside. Sometimes I’ll set something up outside just for a change of pace. Gross motor is built into our outside time, but I like to have some games or experiences available to encourage and challenge the kids. Riding bikes and playing tag get boring if that’s all you ever do! And who says you can’t do gross motor inside as a group?

So that’s how I’ve tackled planning. Truth be told, it feels good to let go and be loose. It means so much more time to be with the kids. I’m getting to play with and know them in ways that I never had time to before. That also means more time for meaningful observations, which leads to better assessing and informed planning. I love the cyclical nature of those three! It’s just managing the timing that’s tricky 😉

I’m nowhere near perfect, but this has been helping me and hopefully it helps those of you also making the journey into truly child led education. I’d love to hear how those of you already practicing child led curriculum handle this too! Are you planners? Or do you wing it?

2 thoughts on “Planning For Play: Lesson Plans in a Child Led Preschool

  1. Misha says:

    Authentic assessment is a powerful tool, as well. It can really help you hone in not just on what students need in general, but also what specific students need to get out of the activities you set up. General materials, like sand, can be a social-emotional recharge for a child with sensory disorders, an opportunity to practice writing the names for friends for a student new to literacy, and forgiving medium to practice drawing for younger students who are still practicing fine motor manipulation. All this can happen at the same time as long as you can hone in on what the student needs.
    As always, beautiful post. Your planning is an inspiration for all us organized teachers in play-based institution. 😉


  2. That Minimalist Teacher says:

    “… in a child led environment, the child controls the lens, but the teacher controls the content”. I love this quote and I agree wholeheartedly with everythng you have said in this post. I’m making some big changes within my teaching career at the moment and this has given me some new things to think about. Thank you! 🙂


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