Tag Archives: learning through play

A river filled with crocodiles

5 Nov

Children are truly amazing. I am, once again, teaching a 4 to 5 year old group. It is a learning situation for me as well as for the children. I spend a long time every night preparing for the next day and yet their interest is often caught by the unprepared things that happen in the class. The unprepared, spontaneous discussion on what should we do to be a good friend. These children very seriously declared that you should not hurt someone, you should always speak kindly and share your toys. Profound wisdom that they can take into adulthood with them.

I also started with a programme to help them focus and increase their self-control. Every morning we start by sitting with crossed legs and breathing slowly in and out. We greet each other with a morning song and talk about what happened at home. In the three weeks that we have been together, I have learned that laughing and playing are powerful tools to get children to focus. We sing and dance every day. We listen to stories and do art, and they play. Playing is so precious at this age. They are willing to do all the things I ask of them but in the end their question is, “May we go and play?”

When we were small, we did not need to ask. In fact, we were chased out of the house to go and play. When we were in primary school, no one ever asked where we were going after school. You only had to be back when the sun went down. I know the world has changed. I also know that I had an incredible childhood. It was filled, not with possessions, but with experience. I can remember one day discovering  a shallow pool filled with enormous bullfrogs. We went back there to observe and watch the bullfrogs until they mysteriously disappeared. Today there is a huge hospital built on this site.

I know we cannot bring back the carefree days of our childhood. However, we can make it easier for young children to be children. When I hear that children as young as three have to do ballet, formal music classes, mathematics and learn to read and write, it fills me with sadness. They should, like the troop in my class, go out and play. The other day they built a river, filled it with water and swung over the river with the rope swing in the tree. I do not think that anyone of them has ever done that in real life, but their imagination enabled them to live that experience. And who are we to say they do not learn?

We should allow our children to create memories for the day that will surely come when they are sad and alone. Then they can remember making a wide, dangerous river, filled with crocodiles and swinging over this river with the help of their friends. Is that a waste of time? No. As long as we know that we need friends; and that you must not hurt your friends; and share your time and resources; we know that we learn for the future.

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Standing on the shoulders of giants

2 May

Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and teacher, started her first preschool in the early 1920’s. She was the first person to make the furniture and learning environment child friendly. She was also the first person to say that children learn through playing with each other. One of the things that Maria Montessori did was to observe children in their play without interfering in their play.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist that became interested in how children learn by observing his own children.  He was the first one to say that children learn in a completely different way from adults. His advice to teachers was to create an environment where young children can play and where the role of the teacher was to observe and not to interfere.

This is exactly what modern brain researchers and learning specialists say. The only difference is that Montessori and Piaget’s position was based on thorough observation and modern researchers like Alison Gopnik, Stuart Brown and Sugata Mitra base their position on irrefutable evidence of brain research.

The question we must ask is then why do people in light of almost 100 years of evidence still insist that playing is a waste of time and worksheets are a valid way to introduce children to the rigors of primary school?

One of the things we know from brain research and from evidence in schools, is that the lack of vigorous, physical play has precipitated an avalanche of learning difficulties. A more hidden result is that a lack of play leads to a diminishing ability to think symbolically. That in turn influences creative thinking and the ability to read, write and do well in Math. Stress and the effect of stress on learning have been researched very thoroughly in recent times. When learners are subjected to situations where they experience stress, or when teachers (and parents) use stress to “motivate” learners to do better, the stress level increases so much that no learning can take place.

Why do teachers and parents persist in ignoring research? Maybe it is because education is so caught up in a conservative mode of thinking, or alternatively that teachers and parents do not read and take notice of the abundance of evidence. 

In our preschool and primary school we apply the results of brain development research. We have reached the stage where we label our program a brain-based learning programme. The results are spectacular. The best reward for us as teachers is that our learners are really hooked on school!

I often wonder what Dr Montessori and Piaget would say if I could meet them over a cup of coffee?