As you walk into the Adventure Park Academy classroom, don’t be surprised if you hear the sounds of children laughing and having fun. As a parent, you might worry that there isn’t much learning going on, but that is simply not the case. Parents, teachers, and experts agree that play-based learning is crucial to a child’s growth and development.

“Play-based learning embraces giving children time to carry out their own ideas through play. Children are allowed to explore information in their surroundings in an experiential, exploratory way, rather than in a didactic, script-based format. Play-based learning incorporates sensory learning and can include activities such as the arts, nature, and music,” says Meghan Parker in “Learning Without Tears”. This might seem like a no-brainer, but many parents and preschools are under pressure from common core standards and mandated academic tests to force children to read when they are not developmentally ready. This focus on academics can lead to other learning problems down the line.

Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post wrote an excellent article on her own experience with her daughter’s pre-school education. Strauss found that she was spending far too much time focusing on her child’s reading readiness, and hardly any time on allowing her to learn through free play. “Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions,” she writes.

Adventure Park Academy offers a unique experience for families in search of a unique learning environment that’s different than traditional preschools and childcare centers. Not only will your child have access to a number of varied games and physically challenging activities, but they will get to have a ton of fun while they learn!

I talked with Adventure Park Academy director Melissa Brunisi about her approach to early childhood learning and development and what play-based learning means to her. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your background in childcare and how you came to work for Adventure Park USA?  

I began working in the early childhood field when I was 19 years old while attending college at Villa Julie in Greenspring, MD.  When I graduated with a degree in Business Communication, the Childcare Corporation, I worked for offered me a full-time management position. For the next 14 years, I traveled to childcare centers in Baltimore, Montgomery, and Howard Counties. I liked the work, but it was a really long commute for me. In 2011 the director position opened up at Adventure Park Academy, and I was thrilled when they offered me the job. At the time, I had 2 children under the age of 5 at home. Adventure Park is much closer to where I live, and the shorter commute would allow me to spend a lot more time with my young children, which has benefitted my family in so many ways.

What does play-based learning mean to you?

To me, it means giving children the opportunity to learn by interacting with each other and their environment. We encourage this by providing play-based materials in the classroom.

What is your approach to free play, and why do you think it’s important for young children’s growth and development? 

We set specific goals and then design play-based activities around these goals. Children can engage in dramatic play such as setting up a pretend restaurant. We believe that sensory play is crucial, so we use blocks, farm animals, letter cards, dinosaurs, and other items to help the children develop their minds and bodies.

Can you give me some examples of games or experiments that you do with your preschoolers, and what you aim to teach with them?

We do a lot of hands-on learning with the children. In the fall we will go and visit a pumpkin patch, and the kids get to pick their own pumpkin. We enrich that experience by then carving the pumpkin, writing in a journal and then cooking the seeds.

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Are there any specific things that parents can expect from Adventure Park Academy that they wouldn’t see at other pre-schools?

You will see a balanced approach to learning at Adventure Park Academy because we focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. We encourage independence and problem-solving skills that help children gain confidence in themselves. Our goal is for your child to leave the program ready for kindergarten.

What can you tell me about your staff?

My staff members are dedicated to the overall development of each individual child. Each one has a passion for helping children learn and grow. These individuals have spent many hours training, gaining experience and honing their skills as early childhood teachers. I am lucky enough to have several degreed teachers who collectively have over 30 years of experience in the field.

What role does physical activity have in your curriculum? 

 Physical activity plays a big part in our curriculum.  The children have access to a private playground, as well as the soft play area inside Adventure Park USA.  No matter what the weather outside the children will always have an opportunity for gross motor play/physical activity.  Physical activity is very important to a child’s day.  It helps with executive functioning such as memory and sequencing and it primes the brain for learning.  It also helps children with extra wiggles to get them out so they are ready for classroom interactions. 

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 Do your students have access to the arcade, games or other amenities in the park?

The older school-age children have access to the park attractions and games on a more regular basis when they are open. They typically will do arcade at least once a week as well as laser tag.  On FCPS out days, the children in attendance can also purchase from the café.   The younger children don’t do the arcade as much as it is not as age-appropriate for them.  They do however take advantage on a daily basis the soft play climbing area and the rides during the summer months.

Finally, are there any other things that you would like parents to know about Adventure Park Academy?

We are not a traditional early learning and childcare center. I often say that this is a home away from home for our students and their families. One of my favorite parts of this job is that we get to form some close personal relationships with our families, and I think that is one of the reasons why many of them continue to return year after year. I want people to feel a sense of comfort and belonging when they come to Adventure Park Academy, I want them to feel like they are part of our family.

Bethany Good is a freelance writer from Frederick.