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The Straits Times

Saturday, September 22,2001, Page H8
By M. Nirmala

Play is the best way to learn

‘When children play, they are thinking, imagining, innovating, taking risks, arguing and creating make-believe events within the safety of unreality.’ – Dr Elizabeth Jones, a lecturer at Pacific Oaks College in California.

Children develop life-skills best through play, not through overload of formal programmes, say experts.

If you want your preschooler to grow up to be a thinker, an innovator or a risk-taker, let me play. The worst thing you can do is to bombard him with information or drag him from one educational programme to another in the mistaken belief that these efforts will make him smarter. And it is not just children who need to be educated differently. Parents too, need to be schooled in new “under one-roof” schools, like the one in New York which is open from 7 am to 10 pm and caters to the needs of preschoolers, pupils and parents.

This, in a nutshell, was the key message that preschool experts from overseas had for kindergarten and child-care centre teachers, at a recent conference in Singapore on:

The Thinking Child : Nurturing A Generation of Leaders.

National Trades Union Congress Childcare, a key provider of child-care services, organized the conference to address the key concerns of preschool educators today. Should preschool education emphasise academic skills, as many centres do now? Or should there be a new approach that fosters creativity and critical thinking through play? This has been a hot topic since last year with MPs, childcare educators and parents looking to redefine how young children should be taught.

So, teacher training has been improved by the Education Ministry and the Ministry for Community Development and Sports. New curriculum guidelines are being drawn up for preschool and bout 2,000 kindergarten children are involved in a $2 million research project aimed at improving the quality of preschool education.

At the conference, Dr Elizabeth Jones, who teaches at Pacific Oaks College in California ad advocates learning through play, said: “I am convinced, from all my experience, that the most important skill to be mastered by preschool children is play.”

“When children play, they are thinking, imagining, innovating, taking risks, arguing and creating make-believe events within the safety of unreality.”

“Early childhood is the safest time to practice these important skills and attitudes, because adults are there to keep things safe.” It is easy, she said, to find a preschool centre anywhere that uses this approach.

“In the classroom where this process is going on, children talk more that teachers do,” she said.

The conference also focused on how preschool teachers and parents can help to inspire children’s curiosity and develop a passion for learning. School, family and community used to work together to help children and their families.

Dr Patricia Hogan, professor of social-work education at Boston’s Wheelock College, cited as an example Intermediate School 218 in New York City, which aims to offer a seamless fusion of school-day activities with extended-day programmes.

The preschool programme begins at 7 am. After school, the older children stay back for sports, arts and music. The school set up by the New York City Board of Education and a children’s society, also provide medical and dental help, and mental-health services.

Parents and other members of the community come in from 6 pm for courses ranging from aerobics to English as a second language. Parents volunteer in the school and the agency as aides. This model is replicated widely in the United States, and long term studies are sowing that many families use the school’s services and that dropout rates are down. “In this kind of partnership, parents are seen as experts on their children,” she said.

Echoing, this point, Professor Pnina Klein of the School of Education in Israel’s Bar-Ilan University said parents, not just teachers, play a major role in shaping their children’s emotional development. The university studied 68 poor families in which the children were ill-prepared for school, did poorly in school or dropped out.

The study trained the mothers to show support for their children’s work. Instead of simply telling a child “good” or “fine”, for example, they were urged to show that they were excited, by asking the child: “Does it remind you of anything?” or “What is it like?”

Three years later after the training, a follow-up study found that children brought up in this supportive environment had a better grasp of the language and were stronger in verbal reasoning than children outside the study.

It showed, she said, that mothers who were poor could be trained to improve and contribute to their children’s cognitive development as well as middle-class mothers...Read more.....