The importance of play-based learning in early childhood education

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Playing is the natural way of how children learn.

Children naturally learn through play, so that principle has to be fundamental to the design of any programme for teaching youngsters. Peggy Mou, Senior Lecturer, at the Department of Early Childhood Education at The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK) explains how play is incorporated in the classroom to provide learning that is fun and effective. 

“To design and develop a play-based curriculum, EdUHK students must take into consideration the classroom environment and their roles as teacher,” Mou says. “They must also take account of what they are teaching, and the developmental area, whether it is maths, science, music, art or a language.”

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Being able to establish an environment conducive to play and learning is essential for a successful activity, she adds. Therefore, students learn that, as teachers, one of their main responsibilities is to provide children with the scaffolding – a supportive and safe environment – where they are free to explore and experience. 

Teachers are there to observe and respond. And while a kindergarten class may seem like organised chaos to some, it is often the result of hours of careful activity planning and classroom preparation to facilitate natural learning through play.

Graduates of the two-year full-time Higher Diploma in Early Childhood) (HD(ECE)) may go on to teach at local and international kindergartens or special needs schools. One recent student specifically chose the programme with a view to do her block practice in a special needs school. Her diligence and open, friendly manner also showed other students the importance of empathy as a teacher. 

Reading is a fun-filled activity for both children and teachers.
Photo: The Education University of Hong Kong​

Throughout the programme, Mou tries to inspire students and reinforces the point that one aim of future teachers should be to go on to inspire others. 

During a recent study tour to the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, students observed the different teaching environments at four different schools, including one for aboriginal children. According to Mou, what made a particular impression were the large play areas and the attitude of Australian teachers towards the need for play. 

Sensory play is key to Australian curriculum.
Photo: The Education University of Hong Kong​

“We also looked at the playgrounds in Newcastle, which are designed to allow children to explore,” Mou says. “They can play with water and sounds and challenge themselves physically.” 

The Hong Kong students also noted that healthy childhood development includes learning to overcome measured risk, which can be built into playground design. 

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As an extra element in their training, an art enhancement programme, organised in collaboration with the non-profit making Playright Children’s Play Foundation, gives students a chance to learn more about play design and planning. They also participate in an experiential workshop and visit a Playright centre as part of the programme. 

Mou previously worked as an early childhood educator. It was a love of children and a desire to help them that led her to a career in this field. She still remember having a very rare bad day at work when she was still a kindergarten teacher. One of the children noticed and approached her to ask what was wrong. When Mou admitted she was feeling a bit sad, the child’s immediate response was to comfort her and try to make her feel better. It was a moment that made a bad day better and showed Mou how astute children are in observing the people and things in their environment.

Students taking the HD(ECE) have many opportunities for field visit and practical experience, which help in attaining the high level of professionalism which is necessary. As early childhood educators, they cover all learning areas and develop excellent soft skills, including effective communication skills, so they can deal confidently with school authorities, colleagues, parents and, of course, children.

Edited by John Cremer