6 Early Learning Programs Where Play Rules

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Monica sent a message yesterday asking about programs that were “all about play” so I put together this list.

Deciding which program to include was a challenge. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit many amazing play settings across the United States, Canada, and Australia. To whittle down the possibilities, I decided that for this article I’d only include the 6 play-loving programs that I’ve spent the most time at and had visited multiple times. At some point, I’ll do another list–or more.

I think a couple things these programs have in common are:

  • The environment is relaxed, inviting, and engaging.
  • The children are trusted as smart, able, and curious beings.
  • The staff are attentive, knowledgeable, and good at letting kids lead their learning.
  • Play rules.

Below (in alphabetical order) are the programs, their locations, some comments, and their Facebook links. I’m not doing a big write-up on each program because scrolling their Facebook photos and other posts will provide you with a much better sense of what play looks like at each program. Take time to click and scroll.

Butterfly Hill Nature Preschool

Alexandria, Minnesota United States

My granddaughter attended this program. We showed up for a visit one late-winter afternoon as the temperature soared into the 40s. The kids splashed through puddles, dug in slushy mounds of snow, and raced like wolves across the playground.

Discovery Early Learning Center

Poolesville, Maryland United States

On one visit, a couple three year old boys said they needed hot glue guns. A few moments later they were hot gluing. One explained that I needed to be careful so I didn’t get burnt and that he was a hot glue “expert” and would teach me. Behind them, a girl sat on a table working a 18 inch tall mound of slippery clay.


Karana Early Education Centre

Karana Downs, Queesland Australia

Along with lots of happy children, they have a beehive and chickens on their playground. On a couple visits, we joined field trips to splash in the Brisbane river. The first time we visited, we’d budgeted an hour–we left 4 hours later-hot, dusty, exhausted, and happy.

Kathy’s House Family Day Care

Brisbane, Queensland Australia

The place is magical inside and out. The outside space is a secret garden dripping with play and plants. Flowers cascade over sand pits and loose parts piles. It was raining during our most recent visit, but that didn’t slow the play. A hill turned into a slippery mud slide–first for toy trucks, then for the kids.

Mountaintop Family Childcare

Worcester, New York United States

Literally on top of a mountain, the first thing I noticed when I pulled up was the quiet of the beautiful surroundings. The second thing I noticed was how independent, confident, and capable the kids were as they played. At lunch time, I was mesmerized by a couple toddlers as they competently spooned food onto their plates.

Tír na nÓg Forest School

Sussex, New Brunswick Canada

On our first visit, the kids decided they should show us the brook–a short walk down a muddy farm road from the program’s base camp. It was a brisk 34 degree October day. Upon reaching the brook, some of the kids stripped down to their underwear and hopped in for a splash. A four year old boy looked at me and said, “get it!” I got in. It was delightful.


As I’ve replayed these visits in my head, I realize the passion, professionalism, and resistance of the people who run these programs are also commonalities. Kisha, Kristen, Trisha, Kathy, Melinda, and Lisa all put lots of time, energy, and resources into their programs–and it shows. While these programs all share some philosophical ideas about play and early learning, they bring those ideas to life in unique ways.
I’d love to highlight more programs that are passionate about play here at Playvolution HQ, so if you have suggestions, please share them in the comments.
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I'm an early learning speaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ and Explorations Early Learning.