Saturday, 28 September 2013

Learning through play

If almost every centre's philosophy states that children 'learn through play', why are we still undervaluing it?

It seems that we keep forgetting that children learn through play, and continue to look for other ways of teaching that seem more impressive. The result is that all we're doing is succeeding in impressing people who have very limited understanding of educational theory. The question is, are we here to impress, or are we here to make a real difference to children's lives? I'm constantly hearing people advise others to have conversations with children on the mat about this or that. I've been puzzling over this for some time now, wondering if this is something I should do more of, or whether there's some vital aspect of early children education that I'm missing or misunderstanding.

I recently read somewhere that children forget 90% of what we say to them within 30 days. If this is true then it says a lot, doesn't it? I happen to be an auditory learner. I was born with a natural connection to music, a sensitivity to noise in my environment, an inability to ever forget verbal criticism, and the ability to sit in a lecture theatre for hours without taking notes and retain a significant quantity of knowledge and understanding. Is this you? Probably not. Everybody has a different learning style. Auditory learners are a distinct minority. My understanding from talking to others is that the majority of people learn best through engaging with information visually or kinaesthetically. Children are even more grounded in their bodies, connected to the immediate reality of their environments, and still having the freedom and the ability to exist in the present moment.

The foundation of children's learning is play! Deep, sustained, concentrated, repeated, shared, facilitated, scaffolded engagement with concrete materials in the man-made world, the natural world and the social world. I was taught that the early childhood teacher is the facilitator who enables this quality engagement to happen, and that this is an important job that takes advanced skills of observation, knowledge, thinking, creativity and reflection. We have to understand the importance of this foundation of knowledge and understanding. Lack of foundation leads to scattered knowledge and superficial understanding. We don't want children to enter school teetering on this precarious ground because gaps in understanding lead to further gaps when they become unable to catch up.

Our bodies are powerful, intelligent instruments which carry memory. The time to have those conversations with children is when they are holding concrete objects in their hands, or at an appropriate moment while they are engaging in imaginative play with their peers. Children are then better able to connect the new information to the experience that they're engaging in. Their ability to transfer knowledge, grasp more abstract concepts, and transform reality will develop in time as they gain, consolidate and transcend this foundation.

I asked a parent (who is a secondary teacher) the other day if there was anything in particular that she wanted to see in our program. She said, "Well I'm from a country where children don't go to school until they're seven or eight (Finland). I'm all for play-based learning". I said, "Yes, and Finland has one of the best education systems in the world". She said that it's typical for child care centres in Finland to have a Masters qualified teacher in every room. Wow, you're probably shocked. I was. This shows how vastly far behind we are in recognising the value of young children's education and how important it is in setting them up for their future.

If we want to be where Finland is, we are the answer! We can't be led by every under-researched idea that every person who sets foot in a child care centre offers up to us. We have to be the advocates for play-based learning. We shouldn't feel that we need to change to fit in with school. We have to be the example that shows schools that they need to change. Societal, political and economic factors influence school constructs and curriculum. When society develops the understanding of how a change in the education system will benefit it as a whole, then the education system will change. Change takes time, but we don't have to wait for it. We have the understanding now. Let's use it, share it and fight for it.

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