Play is a fun way of developing children’s cognitive, psychomotor and affective skills.
School was not fun for Matai. His teachers didn’t think he was all that smart, and they wouldn’t let him go on his break if he did not finish his work.
“Matai was made to feel inferior as he wasn’t reading as fast as he was expected to. If he didn’t complete his work in time, he had to skip break time. He was miserable and resented preschool,” his father Michael Wilson, 37, recalls.
Two years ago, cafe owner Wilson and his wife Amirah Mohamad, 33, enrolled their sons Matai, five, and Kae, four, in a kindergarten close to their home in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. The young parents were drawn to the preschool’s Montessori teaching method, good facilities and dedicated teachers.
Despite the kindergarten’s impressive vision, Wilson soon realised the school’s curriculum was too structured and academically driven.
Matai was pushed to learn how to read and write. The poor child found it hard to cope, leaving him stressed and it affected his self-confidence.
Then in June, Matai and his family went to his father’s hometown in Dunedin, New Zealand, for a six-week break.
But it was not all holidays for the boys as their parents had enrolled them into a playschool. But they did not mind at all as the preschool they went to was not all work and more work. They actually got to play.
In that preschool, play is used as a vehicle to learn through exploration, imagination and investigation.
They were placed in a productive environment and could engage freely with their peers. They took part in various activities that stimulated their intellect.
“Given that they had the freedom to make their own choices, they became very interested in learning.
By the end of the six-week session, Matai’s reading improved by leaps and bounds and Kai developed more confidence,” observes Wilson.
When they came back to Kuala Lumpur, Wilson started looking for a new preschool for his sons as they had seen how they had thrived in a play-based environment. Matai and Kae now go to KinderKaizen where they are allowed to learn at their own pace.
“Kids shouldn’t be pressurised to study at a very young age. Instead of forcing them to study, they should be encouraged to excel in areas that they thrive in,” adds Wilson.
Moulding the early years
Dr Putri Afzan Maria Zulkifli, 35, and her husband Mohd Faizul Iqmal Mohd Kamil, 35, also loved how their three young children enjoyed their first learning experience while overseas. Their family lived in Britain for seven years when Dr Putri was completing her Masters in Education and Early Childhood and PhD in Cognitive Science in Children.
Inspired by her children’s positive introduction to learning in British play-based nurseries and preschool, Dr Putri and Mohd Faizul have set out to create and replicate the stimulating environment here. They opened KinderKaizen in Bandar Sri Damansara Selangor three months ago, where they incorporated progressive approaches to early childhood education using mixed methods such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, High Scope Curriculum and Waldorf Education. These approaches, based on developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, use play-based learning to help children realise their full potential as intelligent, creative and whole persons.
“In Britain, my children had the freedom to explore their creativity. They were given the hands-on method of teaching tailored to their needs. Inspired by the effective teaching method, we decided to open up a centre where children can explore their creativity through play,” recalled Dr Putri who has four children, aged between one and eight years.
At the centre, there is no fixed curriculum and children are encouraged to explore different learning methods through play. Unlike other play schools, kids are grouped together in mixed ages so each child can progress ather or his own pace. The centre accepts children between the ages of four and eight.
“Children are taught how to write, count, interact and develop their thinking skills through play. This encourages the development of three domains of learning – cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills,” says Dr Putri. Three teachers trained in early childhood education assist the couple .
Part of the syllabus requires children to role-play, where they get to act out different professions.
“As town planners, children must decide what is needed in a town, work with a team of ‘contractors’ and ‘mayor’ on location of facilities for the community. They then work together to erect buildings using recycled boxes and building blocks. The integrated play-based learning incorporates all three domains,” she explains, adding “kinder” and “kaizen” mean children in German and continuous improvement in Japanese, respectively.
Despite the growing trend of “hot-housing” children – where parents demand academic excellence from their children at a very young age) – there are those who think it is important to recognise that children are, after all, children and should be allowed to enjoy their childhood. Some parents see early learning as a form of accelerator to give children a head start in life. Other parents prefer to allow their children to develop multiple-intelligences through play.
Many education theorists support the idea that play is an essential part in children’s lives. Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that children acquire concepts through active involvement with the environment, and construct their own knowledge as they explore their surroundings.
The Montessori education approach, created by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, stresses on the importance of development of initiative and natural abilities among children.
Like Wilson and Dr Putri, Dr Irene Leow’s exposure to play-based learning was from her children’s experiences abroad.
Back in the 1980s, Dr Leow was pursuing her PhD in zoology in Leister, Britain, and she had enrolled her sons in preschools there. She was so intrigued by their experiences that she began learning more about approaches to early children education. She was the principal of two private schools before eventually setting up Seri Mawar Child Care and Development Centre in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, 26 years ago.
At Seri Mawar, she is intent on offering her preschoolers learning experiences that are a departure from the usual academic-driven models. The children enrolled there take part in a variety of hands-on activities and stimulating learning experiences, which include practical life and self-help activities; art and creative activities; music, activities and play.
“In play, children have the freedom to choose what interests them, and to explore and learn at their own pace, in a non-threatening environment.
“They learn to think and solve problems, create and imagine, and to interact and communicate with one another. Learning becomes meaningful and fun,” says Dr Leow.
She adds play-based programmes are designed to build children’s confidence and help them develop into enthusiastic and lifelong learners.
“When playing with blocks, children discover that blocks vary in shape and size. They learn about colours, weight and how to count. This helps with their cognitive development. When they manipulate and balance blocks, they are developing their motor skills.
“Block play also encourages their problem solving and communication skills and their social skills,” she explains.
Dr Leow uses an eclectic approach based on various theories of child development such as Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories of Cognitive Development, Erikson’s Theory of Pyschosocial Development and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
“We observe children’s interests and help them to develop holistically.
“Sometimes, some children only want to play with blocks or puzzles. Teachers have to be observant and ensure each child plays with a wide range of material for their holistic development,” says Dr Leow, who has 20 staff at her centre.
In the centre, children (between the ages of two and six) are divided into groups based on their age or stage of development. As children grow older, they are introduced to more academic skills.
“While children still have the freedom to play, the teachers play a vital role in structuring their play and ensuring that there is a balance between play and more academic experiences,” says Dr Leow.