Watching children engaged in meaningful, unstructured play is a sight to behold and is something that needs to be valued and encouraged more, in our schools. But for some strange reason, from the moment a child starts school, we deem it inappropriate for them to continue with ‘play-based’ learning – the learning model that is the foundation of the New Zealand early childhood curriculum.
I have come to the conclusion that our education system, as it currently operates, puts too much emphasis on formal learning, too early on. But not only that. I think the system is too rigid and narrowly focused, and does not give children the comprehensive education they need and deserve. In a desire to create smart, intelligent learners, we have inadvertently ignored the human and creative aspects of learning that will help children be resilient and emotionally prepared for the post-school world.
Our school system needs to be designed to fit around the needs of students rather than requiring students to fit into the system. A play based education system that is fun and encourages creativity, is the foundation of effective learning. Play is a means by which children are able to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. And I would suggest that this approach to learning applies equally to people of all ages – not just young children in their early schooling years.
What may come as a surprise to some, is that there is a mandate for making learning broad and focused on the holistic needs of children. The two curriculum documents that are the basis for the NZ education system are exemplary in the way they take a broad and humanistic approach to learning. Unfortunately, the introduction of National Standards has not helped because now, all year 1-8 students are required to be formally assessed in the three core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. The introduction of these standards has added a layer of complexity and contradictory pressure on teachers. Nonetheless, I still believe that we can manage those pressures. In fact, it is essential that we do.
As a matter of interest, while the majority of children in New Zealand start their formal education at 5 years old, in Finland, formal education starts at 7 years old. That does not seem to stop their students still managing to rank highly in international student survey rankings. Go figure!
So, what is developmental play, why should it be encouraged and why will I make sure that the children in my class get lots of opportunities to play?
Play is an essential part of early childhood. Exploratory play and inquiry based learning encourages children to learn, develop and grow whilst they have fun. Through play, children are encouraged to explore, investigate and develop ideas and hypotheses. They can test their ideas and find new ways of building, creating, drawing, thinking. The use of open ended resources promote exploratory and investigative play as well as inquiry based learning. Creativity and imagination is developed through new ways of thinking. Social skills are learned through collaboration with others and language and communication skills improve. Perseverance is developed as children keep exploring and investigating their surroundings. Children will become more confident and develop a stronger sense of identity through play.
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.