Learning to Play and Playing to Learn

Why Time for Fun and Games is Essential for Early Childhood Education

The early years of childhood, specifically those before and during kindergarten, are vital years for growing minds. It is during these years that children first learn how to perceive the world around them, build relationships with others (such as preschool friends) and begin the foundational process of learning problem-solving and analytical skills. For the awe-inspiring curiosity and creativity of young children, into whose early development much research has been undertaken, every marker stain and scattering of building blocks tells a story of a learning journey. For parents, a common question may arise as little ones prepare for their first year of school – what is an appropriate balance between play and more traditional learning activities, like homework and reading?

The short answer is that play is just as important as learning. In fact, learning through play is a process of unparalleled value for the development of childhood cognition. Australian educational institutions have recently put considerable efforts towards embracing a play-based learning approach.

The Early Years Learning Framework was implemented in 2009 as a national response to scientific and social research into the value of play in the classroom. According to the Child Development Institute of California, USA there are different types of play:

“Social Play: By interacting with others in play settings, children learn social rules such as give and take, reciprocity, cooperation…and…learn to use moral reasoning to develop a mature sense of values.

Constructive Play: Constructive play is when children manipulate their environment to create things. This…allows children to experiment with objects; find out combinations that work and don’t work…Children who are comfortable manipulating objects and materials also become good at manipulating words, ideas and concepts.

Fantasy Play: Children learn to…try out new roles and possible situations…to experiment with language and emotions. In addition, children develop flexible thinking; learn to create beyond the here and now…In an ever-more technological society, lots of practice with all forms of abstraction – time, place, amount, symbols, words, and ideas – is essential.”

The evidence in support of the cognitive benefits of play-based learning is overwhelming. Early Childhood Australia describes this, ‘it is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain…secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways… [increasing]…flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life,’ (‘Why Play-Based Learning?2009-2013, Early Childhood Australia), adding that, ‘Worksheets and other ‘formal’ teaching strategies tend to make learning…for many children…more difficult.’ For these reasons, it is important that early childhood educators learn to create learning environments that support physical, mental and social play and experimentation.

The real question is…how is this done?

Modern educators must be equipped to ensure a holistic approach; the layout of classroom furniture, the availability of resources, and the attitudes of tutors and teachers themselves can promote opportunities for children to find the fun in learning. Integrating time for creative, musical or performance activities and lots of discussion into lessons creates a basis – interactive toys, from games to dolls and building materials – support this process. When planning lessons, tutors and teachers should perhaps keep in mind the following model of the ‘spiralled’ learning process of young children as described by Mitchel Resnick from MIT’s Media Lab, ‘children imagine what they want to do, create a project based on their ideas, play with their creations, share their ideas and creations with others, reflect on their experiences – all of which leads them to imagine new ideas and new projects.’ (‘All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten’ Mitchel Resnick, Creativity & Cognition conference, 2007).

Standardised Testing: The Pros and Cons

Standardised testing is a subject that many people believe is placed on either ends of the spectrum; the best way to assess student’s abilities or a complete stress invoking exercise for everyone involved. However, if we take a step back and look at it objectively, it becomes clear that it is neither. Standardised testing has both positive and negative aspects and when used effectively can play a vital role in improving the education of our students.

Let’s being with the negatives:

  • Standardized testing does not take into account external factors and evaluates a student’s performance on one particular day. Many students have the ability and knowledge to answer questions and topics, however do not perform well when it comes to examinations. This can be due to many external and emotional factors comprising of; stress, anxiety, family pressure and conflict and lack of focus or motivation.
  • Moreover, standardised testing only evaluates the individual performance of the student instead of the overall improvement and growth of the student over the course of a period of time. For example; a teacher who has worked hard to assist their students to grow and the students who worked extremely hard over the course of the subject/subjects and improved substantially, unfortunately failed to score proficiently in one examination. This does a disservice to both teacher and child, and argues the question if standardised testing ignores the full evaluation of a child and the education system or instead of one single test performance?
  • Standardized testing is argued to create stress, anxiety and pressure on both educators and students.
  • The success of Australian schools and many around the world are dependent on the performance of their students in standardised tests. Federal funds are given only to those schools that perform well compared to others and this adds an extra pressure on public schools to constantly evaluate their performance. This can lead to unhealthy competition among schools and evoke a tough screening process on students to perform for standardised tests.

Positives:

  • Undoubtedly, the greatest benefit of standardised testing is that it provides a set of established standards or instructional framework which provide teachers with guidance for what and when something needs to be taught. The net result is less wasted instructional time and a simplified way of timeline management. It also enables students who move from one school to another from being behind or ahead in their new school.
  • Standardized testing gives parents a good idea of how their children are doing as compared to students across the country, states, and districts and in their local area.
  • It can be argued that standardised tests are objective in nature. Standardised tests are either scored by computers or by educators who do not directly know the student.

Standardised testing is an arguable topic and can be swayed on both sides of the spectrum. However, the most significant opportunity standardised testing provides is the ability to use the results in an effective manner by educators, students and most importantly by parents.

Fostering Creativity in Children

I always believed that creativity was an inborn talent that children either do or do not have. However, just as all children’s intelligence are not equal, all children are not equally creative unless they are provided with the right environment for creativity to flourish.

During my early years of life, my creativity was limited. Under the Australian educational curriculum, ‘creative thinking’ was not a subject. However, as my experience as a teacher developed; I began to learn that creativity was a key component of health and happiness, and a core skill to practice with children. Creativity is not limited to artistic and musical expression—it is also essential for science, math, and even social and emotional intelligence.

Many researchers believe we have fundamentally changed the experience of childhood in such a way that impairs creative development. More importantly, studies have enabled us to discover various ways to strengthen and nurture your child’s creativity.

Create creative spaces

A creative atmosphere empowers children to ‘think outside the box’ and generate different ideas. For example; at dinnertime or whilst watching television, you can brainstorm activities that the children have never done before for the upcoming weekend or let them freely make up a story using their imagination. The focus of creative activities around the home or school should be a distinct process of generating versus evaluating new ideas.

Provide creative resources

The key component of creative resources is time. Children need plenty of time for unstructured, child directed, imaginative play – combined with adult supervision and guidance. Additionally, a specific location and plenty of supplies including art, written and construction materials can foster creativity thinking. Without a set direction, resources and space – expect creative messes everywhere.

Freedom and Autonomy

Don’t be a boss. It’s difficult for a parent to not fear anything and everything that the world has to confront their child with. However, the external constraints – making them colour within the lines, so to speak – can reduce flexibility in thinking. Parents and educators need to enable children the freedom and autonomy to explore their ideas and do what they want (in a safe and fun way). For example: If your child wants to walk to school like their friends do or go to a party like everyone else in the grade – ask your child ways they can think of that can help reduce any unsafe behavior, which in turn can spark interesting ideas and discussions.

Don’t reward

The concept of rewarding your child for exhibiting creativity interferes with the creative process. It can reduce the quality of their responses and flexibility of their thought. Enable your child to intrinsically be motivated rather than trying to motivate them with incentives. For example; Instead of rewarding your child for practicing piano, allow her to choose what she enjoys – maybe sit with her and draw or ask her what she would love to do – it could be anything; from sport to taking an English tutoring.

Encourage divergent thinking

Divergent thought centers on the concept of the thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It focuses on finding more than one route to a solution – alternate possibilities to any challenge.
You can use divergent thinking in any area of life; whether it be a mathematical problem or the decision to move to a different school. By discussing the pro’s and con’s, alternate answers to a problem and understanding how to re program your thought process – you strive to achieve a clearer, more creative way of living.

A Tutor’s Perspective

As we move closer to the the beginning of the new school year I keep thinking about ways in which we can inspire our students to gain a love of learning. I guess that’s a little bit of a cliche, but I truly believe that education must become an act of passion to be successful.

As a tutor who works to see improved outcomes in children’s skills and grades at school, I believe this must start with happy learners. Does the child feel comfortable with me as a visitor in their home? Did the child want their precious time invaded with more school like banter and activities?
First and foremost, as a tutor, it is my role to make a child believe with all their heart, that tutoring is going to be one of the most important steps in their life’s journey. Somewhere along the line things just stopped moving forward and it is my job, as a tutor, to switch that light bulb back on, ever so dimly at first, and assist them to see that together we can form a little team to make the light shine brighter each week.

As I go off to tutor, I won’t be slapping a pile of worksheets on the table for my student to plough through. I won’t be worried about standardised tests or what reading level my students are on right now. We will talk a while about the holidays and what great things they have done and what ideas have they been creating in their thoughts about the coming year ? We will create a mind map of ideas, set some realistic and exciting goals on one of my goal setting grids, find out what they need to discover about their own learning and then maybe do a bit of a recap on what we were doing last year.

Most importantly their mind map and goal setting grid will be a visual stimulus to look at during the week to remind them that I am mostly certainly here to work with them to help improve their grades, but most importantly to learn who they are, how they learn best and how we will work together to tick off one goal at a time as they are ready to move to the next step in their learning journey.

It is all about the stuff that starts to whet their appetite to begin to dream and say “I can do this.” When I go and see my students next week I will greet them with a huge smile. I have missed seeing them and know I will leave with a bigger smile as I watch them resume to create the person they were born to be.

Surviving the HSC

We go through the present blindfolded. Only when the blindfold is removed and we examine the past, we realise what we have been through and understand what it means. That’s exactly what it feels like now after completing my HSC five years ago. I can truly see and understand the impact the HSC had on my personal and professional life, my confidence and self-esteem, and more importantly I can now understand how to effectively manage the HSC without stress and with ease. I wish all teenagers can experience this realisation whilst completing the HSC but presently, for parents and your children, it’s a roller coaster full of tears, stress and (hopefully most of the time) pure joy to excel.

There are five key understandings I have gained from my past:

  •  Importance of Year 11
  •  Attitude
  •  Study program
  •  Balance
  •  Failure and Opportunities

 

Importance of Year 11

Just like learning your first words. You start with what a word is by sounding out syllables, repeating it over and over again till a whole word comes to form. This grows over the first five years – with more syllables and words. Ultimately, you reach a point when it becomes natural. Natural to sound out a word and use it. You keep building your foundation till you achieve a sophisticated, larger vocabulary. It’s the first five years which were crucial. Without those first five years we wouldn’t be able to talk. And that’s exactly what the 365 days of Year 11 is. Year 11 is the foundation in mathematical, verbal, written and functional problem solving and learning. By excelling in Year 11, you have already set yourself to excel in the next year to come. You have set a layer of knowledge that will only build as you move onto your HSC. So pay attention – Year 11 is important!

 

Attitude

Hans Seyle, a pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist once said “Adopting the right attitude can convert negative stress into a positive one.” Wise words that profoundly resonates with the HSC. One of the first things I started to work on consciously with my own personal development through my HSC and after was to improve my outlook on life. An attitude that would over time become more and more stable so that I could not only look at world in a positive way during the good days but also so I could stay positive, focused and constructive even during tough times, and keep working towards something better. The HSC opened my eyes to strive to build my resilience to stress and pressure. It pushed me to have an attitude of optimism in a negative situation. There were many days of poor marks and effortless work – stress built up and negative thoughts about anything started to well up. But if I slowed down just for a few minutes – even if it was going for a run, talking to friends on social media or watching television – then my mind and body relaxed. It became easier to think things through clearly and easier to find the optimistic and constructive perspective of the HSC. However, everyone has their own methods of dealing with stress – it’s your choice to find a constructive way to handle the stress and stay positive or let it eat you up!

 

Balance

Many parents’ place different expectations on their children during the HSC. Some students are burdened by great expectations while others, receive support for their efforts regardless of the outcome. My parents were not the latter. Now five years down the track I owe this structured, focused and disciplined lifestyle to excellent marks, acceptance into one of the top five universities in Australia and a degree in my hands with valuable work experience in my field. I owe my parents the sacrifice they made of sitting endless hours to teach me, nurture me and love me even when times were tough.

Reality is, this method doesn’t work for most children and as parents and HSC students finding the balance is a difficult one. All students are different and need to be handled by their parents in a way that is in keeping with their own ability to cope with stressful circumstances. The crucial element is communication between you and your child. Teenagers are thirsty for independence and freedom – if that means taking 1 hour of the day to “close your eyes”, watch television, meditate, play video games or one day in the week as a “day off” from study; then it should be discussed by parents and your kids. Attending parties, social functions and dates with your boyfriend (if you have one) are rampant during these teen years, and it’s vital to have communication between parents and children to set boundaries. HSC requires focus and dedication, and swaying off this path can be detrimental to marks and confidence. As we all have heard; balance is the key to success – so let’s live by it.

 

Study Program

There is no right or wrong way to study. No rules, guidelines or methods of a correct way to study. No one taught me to “study.” It was my own drive and dedication to achieving good marks to implement a study program. A weekly structure of revising what had been taught, what will be taught and assignments that need to be completed. Daily, I would dedicate a certain time to revising a subject and covering the content according to the HSC syllabus. This time limit was set by myself – 1 hour or 4; it’s entirely your discretion of what you can strive to sustain. Recently, a study of 722 student surveyed painted an unhappy picture of life for the students during the HSC. This study showed 42% registering a high level of anxiety – high enough to be of clinical concern. Of the total survey group, 16% of students reported extremely severe levels of anxiety, while 37% registered above-average levels of stress. A study program can to some extent relieve this overwhelming stress experienced by our youth. Many universities and colleges provide HSC preparation courses, study skills courses and training programs across a wide range of subjects to help students maximise their HSC results and pace themselves throughout the year.

Additionally, your study program should not stop during school holidays. Within each holiday period, students should prepare for key HSC dates and revise content that has passed. It might seem overwhelming but the HSC was not set to be easy. By implementing a structured routine of study, the HSC will become much easier to accomplish successfully – trust me!

 

Failure and Opportunities

Failure was not an option. Again, that’s what I thought during my two years of the HSC. I thought my parents would hate me if I failed any test, subject or assessment. But that undoubtedly was not the case. Now when I look back – I was more afraid of disappointing myself. I was frightened of failing – my own expectation I had set in my mind. The reality is we all will fail in something on many occasions throughout our life. It’s the ability to pick yourself up and keep moving forward that makes you successful. The two years of HSC will have many ups and downs – days of disappointments and poor marks but it doesn’t mean the world will collapse. It means keep striving to improve and do better. The HSC is a mark – a ticket to allow you access into a world of opportunities of study in university and colleges. To some, it’s the only access to what life goal they want to accomplish but to many the HSC is a stepping stone and there are other pathways to their goals. Whatever your goal is for the HSC, at the end of the day you have to put your 110% in everyday over those 2 years and be pleased with your efforts. As Colin Powell once said “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”