Written by Sindhu Shivalingam and published on 08 June 2021.
What can be more fun for a child than learning through play? The play-way method of education is about giving the child absolute freedom to grasp, explore and absorb knowledge her own way.
I walk into the outdoor learning center of The American International School in Chennai, I see a large open kitchen. A bunch of little 'chefs' had just finished cooking. The used utensils have been left to dry in a tub while the splendid spread of 'food' is on display at a table nearby. It consists of mud, leaves, stones, sticks, and pebbles, served on natural loofah plates.
Next to the kitchen is a sandpit with a large wooden play structure with ropes, pulleys, steps, and slides where children can climb, roll, jump and explore. Additionally, several free-standing units of smooth planks, small ladders, and large lightweight wooden blocks are arranged at interesting angles, resembling an adventure zone. This particular set-up changes every day as the children make and build their own play structures using these free-standing units. Scattered around are mud tunnels fitted with large pipes for the children to crawl through.
Well, if you feel like you are on a trip to adventure land, hold your breath. This is all about 'Play'. Interesting, isn't it? "Play is learning for the child. That's why we don't label areas as 'play areas' as play is the whole focus for how early years students learn," says Vigna, special projects teacher for early years (3-4) at The American International School.
Let's learn more about how play-based learning works.
The play-way or play-based method of education believes in the ability of children to learn by themselves. There is no direct teaching, but the environment is carefully set up by teachers to ensure the child explores, questions, and understands the world around her. This philosophy largely applies to preschool and kindergarten children (2.5 to 5 years of age), when their development calls for plenty of explorative play, movement, and freedom.
Play is learning for the child
Each school has a different curriculum and educational system. Schools even combine different styles to come up with their own unique curriculum. But, the guiding philosophy or the core value is always about letting the child learn through play. In play-way schools, direct teaching of letters and numbers or any other concept is saved for a later date. A five-year-old may have writing exercises that prepare her for mainstream education, but learning is relaxed and play-oriented for three and four-year-olds.
"Children have so many more years to learn 'A to Z' and all the numbers in an academic environment. Right now, they need to play. They need physical movement and they need to play in the sand and manipulate tiny objects (we are always around the child to ensure safety) so their gross and fine motor skills develop. They need to know how to interact with a peer, speak up and ask questions. They need to explore their physical strengths - so they can lift, move, sift and build. They need to be given the space for imagination and creativity. Most of all, they need to be allowed to be happy," says Vigna.
The story is not very different at another 'playful' school - SEED International School also in Chennai, where each month's curriculum goes by a theme. Children start their academic year with the theme 'All about me'. The activities and material vary depending on the age group. Here, if the theme for a month is Food and Nutrition, children are taken to a market to see, touch, and feel the vegetables and fruits. They engage in pretend play activities like buying and selling wooden vegetables. The children and teachers put up a vegetable stall where parents come to buy vegetables. Sometimes, they also prepare simple dishes at school.
Jayashree, center coordinator, SEED International School, says: "Every month, as children learn about the theme, we integrate concepts like shapes, letters, numbers, opposites, science, art and crafts in the curriculum. We introduce activities that will allow them to learn through exploration, experience, and play. We may show two vegetables and ask which one is long and which one is short, or we ask them to pick all the green veggies. When we speak about birds, trees, rain, and weather, we may go on a walk and observe the birds and collect twigs to make a nest."
The schools take great care in selecting their learning material, most of which is open-ended to encourage creativity and imagination. These include simple everyday objects such as bottle corks or twigs. You will also find animal figurines, wooden vegetables, and sensory materials that can be manipulated and built into rockets or trains, bridges, or kitchens. Some materials are designed by the teacher herself. The schools also have plenty of opportunities for pretend play.
The learning environment is split into different areas. There is an indoor learning environment that is further divided into several mini environments—reading and literacy, Math, Social and Dramatics, Art, Science, and the like. There is also an outdoor area with designated spaces - water play, sand play, kitchen (pretend play), free play, motor skill development, and more. "Play is the work of a child. It is learning. A child's social-emotional connections, problem-solving ability, and cognition develop during play," adds Vigna.
In the play-way or play-based system, the teacher sets up open-ended material in the classroom in an inviting manner. The material can be anything - blocks, some letters in a bin, a display of some leaves and twigs (to teach numbers, texture, or about plants). When the child starts working with the material, the teacher observes. Sometimes, if the child doesn't succeed in an activity like solving a puzzle or, stacking blocks, the teacher will still observe, and wait for the child to figure out a way. Trial and error are encouraged. At times, the teacher asks inquiry-based questions; or she merely participates in the child's play. All activities and materials are aimed at helping the child develop age-appropriate skills and a love for learning.
Some schools let the children have some free play as soon as they enter, before gathering. Otherwise, in general, the day starts with Circle Time, which is the morning meeting where children sit in a circle along with the teacher. Each child greets the child sitting next to him or her. The children speak about what they did the previous day. Then the teacher brings out an object to begin a conversation. As they converse, the literacy and social skills of the children develop. "During Circle Time, we ask and tell the children what day, month, year, and time it is. We also discuss the day's weather and the season of the year," Jayshree shares.
During the outdoor exploration time, children have free play in a structured environment. They also go on field visits and observation walks. Play-way schools take great care in selecting their learning materials, most of which are open-ended.
There are plenty of opportunities for movement. The schools encourage sand play and challenging physical movements such as crawling, climbing, and pulling using their hands, to name a few. Children thus learn about their bodies and physical strengths. This, in turn, will help build their stamina further. Some schools also have time for special skill activities like swimming.
During the indoor learning time, the children move from one learning area to another to explore different concepts. The children also sing and dance.
Language, reading, and writing skills: Keeley, a language educator at The American International School says, "We let younger children pick letters and ask them questions like, 'What is that letter? Do you know how it sounds?' and so on. Our interactions are inquiry-based and they help in language acquisition."
'Communication' is a large part of building language and reading skills. Circle time, playtime, book reading, social interactions, and provocations (an open-ended activity designed to stimulate ideas and imagination) are all opportunities for the child to communicate and learn.
Cozy reading nooks with shelves of picture books invite children to pick and snuggle up with a book, to browse and read. Of course, no day is complete without the teacher reading a book aloud to the children and sharing stories. Children also learn new words by observing the space around them, going on field trips, listening to stories, and enacting rhymes.
Number sense: Numbers are taught using games and activities that help the child observe, think and understand. The child may be asked to hop two times or clap three times. "We have a large hopscotch mat with numbers written on it. The child is asked to place one car on the number '1', two cars on the number '2', and so on. We also have cars with numbers written on them. Children match these cars to the written numbers. The children are sometimes asked to jump on number '1' on the hopscotch mat. We have several other materials to teach numbers. For example, we have colored interlocking chains and we ask the children to connect two red chains," explains Jayashree.
Art: Children have a ready supply of art materials to get inspired. In any play-based learning environment, the process of making art or having fun is given more importance than the end product. It is not about getting the perfect collage or coloring within the lines. It is about the process of the child selecting the colors and sitting down to paint. Children are also encouraged to go outdoors to collect twigs and leaves or watch a millipede crawl. Children then come back to the class to create art out of the collected dried leaves and sticks. They feel a great sense of accomplishment in creating their artwork. At the American International School, there is a display of several such artworks —paintbrushes made using twigs and thread, collages made out of leaves, family portraits, colorful paintings, and more.
The process of making the art or having fun is given more importance than the end product
In most play-way schools, the assessment is continuous. The teacher observes the children every day and makes notes on their development. There is no test with papers or a test day when the child's skills are assessed. "If the child hasn't eaten well in the morning, he may not be interested in telling me about shapes or numbers or stories. But, that does not mean he doesn't know them. So, we cannot evaluate a child's understanding based on a single day's test," says Chitra, center head, SEED International school. Keeley adds: "Assessment is not fixed for a particular day where a uniform assessment sheet is given out. We are collecting data throughout the year to see if each child is meeting the educational expectations."
The play-based learning approach can tug at your heart as it is the most natural approach to child development. It is a system that allows your child to grow into a confident learner. "I've worked in other academic-based schools too. Comparing the two, I notice that when learning is play-based, students get along very well and they take ownership of their learning. They ask questions and grow confident. They have more autonomy and control. Their voice is given importance. They get more individual attention from the teacher. They have fun learning. This makes their primary education successful. This sets a strong foundation for a great educational journey," concludes Keeley.
Before enrolling your child in a play-way or play-based school, ensure you visit the school and observe the way the classrooms are set up. Observe the materials available and understand if there is space for the child's imagination and creativity to expand. Study the available supplies and play area while also actively interacting with the director and the teachers. When I asked Vigna what is the one question parents must ask the teacher before enrolling their child, without batting an eye she responded, "Ask if my child will have fun and play!"
Sounds like just the right question, doesn't it?