Playful Pedagogies: The Secret to Wholesome Learning
Children prefer outdoor activities to being cooped up in classrooms
In the early days of my career as a preschool teacher, I found that most children had trouble comprehending numbers, even at the age of 5-6 years. I remember this particular session when I faced difficulty in teaching the concept of numbers and counting to a group of fifteen 3-year-olds. No matter how many lines I drew on the blackboard, the children failed to understand the concept. Frustrated preschoolers are not a pretty sight! Soon, a few children started to cry, and others became visibly restless. As I pondered on what to do, the playground caught my attention, and an idea came to my mind.
In the next class, I took them out on a nature walk and helped them gather fallen leaves in the school ground. Then we sat on the lawn and engaged in several activities using the leaves such as counting, sorting, adding and so on. To my delight, I found that the students thoroughly enjoyed the activity and were very much engaged in it and it helped to improve their elementary mathematical skills. Most importantly, the children preferred outdoor activities to be cooped up in classrooms and practising maths on an abacus, which inspired me to think of outdoor activities for other subjects as well.
Building play-based pedagogies
Play-based learning essentially implies learning while at play. The playspace is an area for a child where anything is possible, where they can engage in designing the world around them to match images or plans, which emerge from their memories, imagination and skills. There are primarily two types of play: free play, which is initiated and directed by the children themselves; and guided play, which has some level of teacher guidance or involvement. Therefore, the adults, namely the teachers and the parents have to help create a space, which is flexible enough to develop the child’s interests, and systematic enough to record, plan and extend those interests into the wider world.
Play can involve a lot of activity-based learning is easy and fun. Activities can range from simple to complex. They could include singing nursery rhymes to improve language acquisition, and drawing and colouring assignments to assess the level of a child’s cognition or enacting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with words on a makeshift stage to develop complex social and higher-order thinking skills. The basic idea is to develop skills along with the dissemination of knowledge and allow the children to have fun while learning.
The playspace is an area for a child where anything is possible, where they can engage in designing the world around them to match images or plans, which emerge from their memories, imagination and skills.
The whatever-you-want-it-to-be place
Outdoor play areas are ideal for learning. In one of the schools that I had taught in, the outdoor play area had both conventional play equipment such as toys, seesaws, slides, sand-and-water areas; and non-conventional playthings such as ropes, cardboard boxes, straws, colourful beads and wooden blocks that children could use for creating objects. I remember a little girl creating a makeshift house with cardboard boxes, scraps of cloth, wooden blocks etc. and enacting scenes from her favourite cartoon show, Noddy.
The indoor area of the school was designed with a stage and gallery space for the display of the children’s artwork. Role-playing is very important for children because it helps develop language and communication skills, builds their understanding of the socio-cultural norms, teaches conflict resolution and alternate perspectives, and supports social-emotional learning. Children often engage in elaborate role-plays such as playing kitchen, ‘teacher-student’ or ‘doctor-doctor’. The teaching staff can observe and gauge the level of participation of children. In the process, they act as facilitators of learning.
Over a period of 17 months in the school, I observed the following.
- The first thing that I noticed was that the newcomers, who were very shy at first and barely took part in any classroom activity, had gained confidence and were participating actively in the activities.
- Secondly, play makes the atmosphere merry enough to stimulate young minds. They absorb knowledge from anywhere and everywhere— they can learn to count with hopscotch!
- Coordination skills of the children improved vastly through gross motor activities such as ball throwing, running, jumping and skipping; and through fine motor activities such as making things with play-doh, drawing, making sand houses etc.
- Most importantly, their thinking ability, problem-solving skills, creativity, and social skills improved vastly when they were given a free rein to exercise their imagination and devise creative ways of applying their ideas in real-life situations.
Technology for playful learning
It may not always be possible to provide an elaborate playful learning space as mentioned before, but technology has come to the rescue. Technology offers unique experiences and opportunities for young children in simulated environments. For example, video games with AR/VR technology representing the ancient or prehistoric world help children visualise objects or living things which are not found anymore. By comparing the development of children in a classroom that does not use technology with that of children who used technology with supporting activities, it was observed that the latter had significantly greater gains in verbal and nonverbal skills, problem solving, abstraction and conceptual skills. Claymation and craftmation characters are also creative ways of attracting a child’s attention to audiovisuals due to their cartoon-like appearance, thus making learning enjoyable and engaging.
Playful activities build experiential knowledge, critical-thinking abilities and collaborative capacities.
Playful learning: Advantages and complications
‘All that matters to children is Play, Play, and Play’, says the National Curriculum Framework for ECCE, describing children as ‘active beings who construct their own knowledge’. Children’s learning and development take place more effectively when they are in contact with the world around them, where they can construct their understanding of the environment, and make sense of their perceptions and experiences. Play is a significant part of this process of learning and exploration. With playful activities, they build experiential knowledge, critical thinking abilities and collaborative capacities. Playful learning is, therefore, the best way to inculcate a lifelong love for learning in children.
However, there is a lot of tension between playful learning and the conventional, structured modes of teaching and learning prevalent in most preschools. Educators have different opinions as to what entails as worthwhile play-based learning for various learners. There may be educators who are very enthusiastic about playful learning practices, but for them, resources such as time, space, and materials can seem in short supply in an annually-structured curriculum. There may be other educators, who find such practices a waste of time as an efficient coverage of the conventional curriculum is more important to them. Also, what is playful to one learner may not seem playful to another. Therefore, educators and administrators have to balance the needs of the children with the requirements of a structured curriculum.
Formulating effective government policies is a surefire way to implement these learning strategies in today’s preschools. Additionally, preschool teachers need to be trained in such pedagogies to incorporate innovative ways to suit the needs of the children.