When it comes to learning for little ones, the best way to get them engaged is by having lots of fun through play! Here's what the experts have to say...
As parents, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word ‘play’ is probably fun, games and lots of noise… but probably not learning. But education experts say otherwise. For young children, especially preschoolers who are just starting their learning journey, it’s important that going to school is fun. They need to be encouraged and excited, so what better way to do it than through their favourite thing in the world: play?
We spoke to experts from some of Singapore’s top international schools to understand more about learning through play. Plus, how us parents can offer our kids more playful learning opportunities at home…
What does ‘learning through play’ mean?
“In a play-based learning approach, children are given the autonomy to select activities based on their interests. Teachers act as facilitators of learning and create an environment of exploration and discovery,” says Jesika Thakar, principal of White Lodge International Preschool and Childcare Bukit Timah (currently Invictus International Preschool). This means that kids have the freedom to follow their interests. Teachers are simply there to guide them through their learning. At Nexus International School (Singapore), a lesson about culture turns a classroom into a mini-airport. We’re talking check-in baggage counters, security desks, and passport control – all designed and built by the children!
Why is it so important for children?
Pat’s Schoolhouse knows that children are active, curious and competent learners. As such, this cool preschool adopts an inquiry-embedded play approach to teaching and learning for its students. “We believe that play is a natural learning environment for children as it is safe and familiar to them. It begins with children wondering about something interesting, strange or intriguing in the curriculum, before forming questions and pursuing meaningful investigations with teacher’s facilitation to explore the answers. This allows children to acquire knowledge, skills and dispositions for holistic development, as well as experience the joy of learning that upholds curiosity, creativity and confidence.”
The educators at Pat’s Schoolhouse also go to great lengths to provide its little learners with a nurturing environment where they are encouraged to be curious and happy explorers. Using the environment as the third teacher, children take on a constructivist approach to play, which focuses on creating intentional, meaningful, and inquiry-embedded play-based learning experiences. By empowering curiosity, creativity, and confidence in children to learn holistically through unhurried, pleasurable caring experiences, children are ready to take on the world with minimal intervention by adults.
You can see Pat’s Schoolhouse’s inquiry-embedded play approach in action by scheduling a visit to any of their centres.
Similarly at Blue House Nursery and International School, its deputy head of school Abhi Prakash says, “Play comes naturally to children, and it is the primary pathway for them to participate within their social and cultural communities. In play, the possibilities are endless. During play, children don’t merely engage with objects and materials – they develop meanings, ideas, roles, rules and relationships, making cognitive leaps and transformations.” It also makes them more creative and curious, and works their gross and fine motor skills and their social skills. “Kids learn to share and respect their friends and as they grow and develop,” adds Abhi. “Play is often the foundation for building those social skills we need well into our adulthood!”
Tanglin’s Infant School has received high praise for its impressive Early Years programme. Keeping in mind its vision to cultivate a balanced education, the school has launched a new outdoor-based learning model for nursery-age children. Tanglin’s Forest School Programme takes learning outside by incorporating the outdoors into its curriculum. Little ones are encouraged to use authentic materials, appreciate the natural environment and use their surroundings as the “third teacher”. Learning in a new setting that’s not confined to a classroom can develop their academic, creative, personal and social skills, and also stimulate physical development.
“Tanglin’s Forest School Programme is a welcome alternative for children to be active, to learn and to be immersed in the great outdoors. The programme is specially developed to complement the existing curriculum to enhance children’s self-confidence, resilience, as well as their spiritual, intellectual and creative development. Our team here at Tanglin Trust School developed it to encourage discovery, hands-on learning, collaboration and allow children to explore the environment at the same time,” says Paula Craigie, head of the Infant School at Tanglin Trust School.
But how does play help with actual learning?
The interesting thing about play is that it offers children authentic experiences, or ‘doing’. Children present their own problems and, from these, explore solutions and develop understandings of the real world. “By comparing and contrasting information they’ve gained from each new experience to what they already know, they are actively constructing their knowledge of the way the world works.” says Lisa Cheyne, Nursery and Kindergarten phase leader at Nexus International School (Singapore). And yes, they are actually learning. “It’s evident in our parent-teacher conferences, learning assessments and exam results,” she adds. “Children are able to articulate their understanding beyond concepts as they question, discover, test, make mistakes and learn – gaining a complex and deeper understanding to the lesson.”
So, how can parents help encourage learning through play at home?
Hannah Connors, a preschool teacher at Singapore American School, suggests: “Through play, children and adults can come together to encounter, explore and impact the world. At home, parents can offer a wide variety of real materials for children that they can use in different ways. Parents can listen to their children’s ideas and see how they would like to play with the materials. Pots and pans from the kitchen might become musical instruments. Cups and saucers could inspire a tea party. A blanket might create a den, a teddy bear’s bed or a superhero cape. Children often use materials in surprising and wonderful ways. A simple cardboard box is filled with possibilities.”
On the other hand, some educators believe that giving ideas would only limit the possibilities of learning through play. “Our only suggestion is to take the lead from your child,” explains Abhi from Blue House. “The best activities are those that are child-initiated. Involving children in the decision-making process makes the activity interesting and engaging to them. Parents can take the cue from their children, and respond to their interests and choices.”
Whichever activities you decide to do, the key ingredient is to have lots of fun. Get ready to answer lots of questions and get messy! And, says Jesika from White Lodge, “By encouraging creativity and exploration, we are helping our kids prepare for the flexible and high-level thinking processes they’ll be using in the future.” Pretty cool stuff, we think!
Thank you for the insights and tips on learning through play, Jesika, Abhi, Paula, Hannah and Lisa!