‘Let them play’ The Star

Children learn easily – and play comes naturally – in an environment that is comfortable for them.

Much research has been conducted locally and internationally which establishes how play is vital to children, not just in supporting their holistic development and well-being, but also as a way for them to learn skills.

From experience, I found that when children get to do something they enjoy, they not only pay more attention, but are also more interested in learning regardless of what content it is.

Children generally learn and develop a lot through play, and this applies to those with special needs as well.

For developing children, it is beneficial to integrate play with learning. Make learning more engaging and purposeful as this is especially helpful for special needs children to understand the concept of taking turns, physical coordination, and how to express emotions.

However, despite the wealth of empirical evidence, why is the play-based approach not widely used in our classrooms? How many times have we heard parents and educators say, “Stop playing, go study and do your homework”?

This is a result of the gap between early childhood education and primary education. The national primary curriculum gives great importance to literacy and numeracy; hence, schools employ a more traditional academic-oriented approach.

The only subject that allows for any form of play to take place is Physical Education, which takes up one or two lessons in a week. Clearly, the teaching and learning styles in primary education are completely different from what is practiced in preschools.

Over the years, it has become the role of preschools to prepare children for their schooling years by focusing on skills such as literacy and numeracy. Primary educators expect children to transition easily from preschool to classrooms. This is the primary reason why many in-service educators and center owners report that the play-based approach is unpopular.

Many parents and even early childhood educators are not keen on embracing the play-based approach with some claiming that previous experience proved the pedagogy to be unsuccessful. When preschools use the play-based approach, the child does exceptionally well while he or she is there , but when the child progresses to primary school, parents claim that the child is unable to cope with lessons.

“I need to cater to what the parents want. If they want a workbook and worksheets type of approach, I will ask my teachers to use that method in class,” a private preschool head once shared.

As much as she wanted to adopt the play-based approach, she could not. Instead, she was forced to implement a teaching and learning approach that was concentrated on pencil and paper type of activities because that was what parents wanted.

So, does this mean that the play-based approach would never work? What needs to be reiterated is that playing does not hamper a child’s readiness for primary schooling and it does not prevent one from achieving good academic results.

We need to value constructive play as a means to learning. It is worth our effort if we can make learning meaningful and engaging.

A preschool teacher once told me about her early struggles of teaching addition and subtraction to some of her students. It was not until she saw her children playing hopscotch at home that she decided to try using the game to teach maths at her preschool.

“It amazed me how I could get through to them with the game – hopscotch was a solution to my maths problem and I have been using it ever since,” she told me.

Now, if it is both easy to implement and empirically sound, why is this approach still unpopular? Perhaps this is because the concept of play as a pedagogy is widely misunderstood.

Many early childhood educators use play activities but fail to integrate them into the curriculum. Play is still largely viewed as a parallel to the lesson and not the lesson itself.

This is due to the lack of pedagogical knowledge and exposure to the importance of the implementation of play-based pedagogy in the development of children’s learning.

In an attempt to cater to the uniqueness of early childhood and the demand of primary education, the view of play-based pedagogy is somewhat lost in translation. This is why many fail to help children transition from preschool to primary school successfully.

Play as pedagogy should be seen as a way of integrating children’s play experiences into the curriculum. Play-based pedagogy that is applied in a structured manner will help develop knowledge, skills and values.

While engaging in meaningful activities, children should be given the flexibility to find their own solutions to both new and existing problems. And we need to encourage autonomy and their independent motivation to learn.

Play should be seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Revati Ramakrishnan is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Taylor’s University. She is also the assistant secretary of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Council Malaysia. Her areas of research include special education, socio-economic status aspects and teacher training within early childhood education.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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