Reading, writing and maths are one of the first things children learn when they get to primary school and critical skills required to pass and excel in matric. And yet, mastering these skills begins at birth and through play. Play is increasingly recognised as the foundation for all learning. In a world where 755-million adults and 124 children are illiterate, quality play in childhood offers a fairly simple solution: children play anywhere, anytime and with anything. This means that they are developing an extraordinary amount of skills by playing. Many adults consider this as counter-intuitive, but play is the work of childhood.
Monica Stach, CEO of Cotlands has noted that being able to read and write and understand bills and invoices is a matter of dignity. Many parents – 95% of them – don’t have the resources to read books to their children nor assist them with basic mathematics. Often, parents believe that their children will acquire these skills when they get to primary school, but Stach asserts that the learning happens well before Grade R. Too often, parents and caregivers are silent around children and preoccupied with technology. Play, singing and conversations should be happening. Play includes handling books, and even looking at a newspaper, no matter if children understand the words. What’s key is a dialogue between adult and child.
Stach says that the goal of play-based learning is in fact for children to enjoy reading and mathematics. “If they yearn to do these activities and find enjoyment in them, that’s how you know you’ve done your job.”
There are robust organisations in South Africa that focus on reading, such as Nali’bali. The organization encourages young children to read through their repository of multilingual stories, story cards and story seeds. Early play can make reading more impactful and meaningful. South African early childhood practitioners and pre-school teachers recently had the opportunity to learn about how language and maths skills are formed through play.
The Department of Basic Education, Cotlands and UNICEF, supported by the Lego Foundation, hosted 2018’s PLAY Conference with the aim of addressing play-based learning for children from birth to nine years old. The organisers have also partnered in a multi-year initiative to train 150 000 teachers and ECD practitioners in play-based learning. This training is packaged as an in-service training module that will ultimately be incorporated in the ECD teaching degree. Cotlands spearheaded the development of the training, integrating web-based training, gamification and social media.
The conference, pitched at policy makers and senior educators and practitioners highlighted the importance of play, citing facts like playing outdoors and dancing improves motor development, which is crucial for writing. To improve maths, stacking blocks is useful. Dr Amina Brey was one of the conference’s keynote speakers, passionately detailing the place of the “six bricks” initiative in building maths skills.
The overall rationale of the Play Conference 2018 was to provide the link between matric results and the importance of the development of foundational knowledge. This foundational knowledge involves the skills acquired in very early childhood. Learning through play is critical. Thus, the objectives of this year’s conference were to establish an understanding and link between the Grade 12 results in maths and languages and play-based learning in early childhood.
Practitioners were exposed to “Six Bricks” designed by Care for Education and supported by the Lego Foundation. Each child gets a set of 6 Duplo bricks to use with short activities, exercises and games “designed to wake up the brain and get the child moving, thinking and remembering,” says Dr Brey.
Dr Brey also noted that play should be open ended and repetitive. Everyday play such as steering a pram to get a sense of space, matching lids to sauce pans, rolling play dough, setting the table, and helping to sort the washing are all important activities. Opportunities for matching, sorting, assessing weight and three-dimensionality are everywhere.
Teachers and practitioners at the conference acknowledged that play can happen anywhere. Conversations were abuzz with ideas: planting seeds in soil, tidying toys as a physical exercise, comparing colours, feeling the textures of nature. As Dr Stach said: “There are no worksheets in sight and yet all the fundamental building blocks for learning are in play.”