Rethinking pre-service teacher education to embrace play and learning

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“Young people entering teacher education don’t see a relationship between play and learning,” Sarah Gravett, Professor of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), began the dialogue with a plea to address this perception in pre-service teacher programmes.

 Even though this statement reflects the views of those interviewed for a study she supervises, it serves as a window to gauge the thinking of pre-service teachers. This position was also evident in another project Gravett oversees, in which in-service teachers held resistance to incorporating play as they could not see play as a learning strategy.

It is crucial to pay attention to such viewpoints as this has implications for pre-service teacher education programmes. To think of play only in the context of a leisurely activity is a fallacy and it is therefore important to find effective methods that allow for a change of beliefs and acceptance of play as a learning tool by pre-service teachers.  

In a 2016 paper titled: Play in Grade R classrooms: Diverse teacher perceptions and practices, by Shelley Aronstam and Martin Braund from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), scrutinised the views of teachers in trying to understand how they perceive play in the classroom.  

The scholars wrote, “Teachers at some schools seem to have less knowledge of the pedagogy of play. Insights into early childhood teachers’ views on the role of play in the curriculum have the potential to inform the planning for teacher training and national policy development for early years’ learning.”

The findings by Aronstam and Braund from CPUT indicated that teachers had a minimal understanding of play pedagogy. “Teachers do not display an awareness of their role during informal play and often view these occasions as purely recreational time for young children with few benefits for learning and little meaningful interaction.”

By probing teacher perceptions of play as a learning tool, we can address the polarisation of play and learning and playing and teaching. But for this to happen, Aronstam and Braund advocate for teachers to develop a more critical understanding of what different forms of play mean to individuals and groups of children.

It is of great significance to note, according to Gravett, that teachers are not disputing that play contributes to the development of young children. And that play is important. But they still see play [as separate from teaching and learning].  ‘We have time in class to play and ‘we have time to learn, and to teach. But we can’t bring the two together, says the professor during the dialogue.

From this disconnect, evident from the perceptions of pre-and-in-service teachers, deeper conversations and practical implementation strategies in teacher education is required to help facilitate teacher engagement. This is where The LEGO Foundation fits into the conversation. The organisation says play has the potential to unlock essential skills as children learn naturally through play.

Ole Kjær Thomasen, who joined The Pedagogy of Play, Coding and Robotics, and Technology in Education dialogue, said learning should be “one big joy block”. If one extends on this point of joy, an argument can be made that it connects to play. It is through joyful play that children can engage, spark curiosity and develop cognitively. Playful experiences inject happy memories in children which leads to the ripple effect on joyful learning experiences.

The LEGO Foundation uses the Six Bricks concept amongst others to ignite learning through play. Six Bricks is a practical playful learning tool that can be integrated for pedagogical practices. Through fun, short and playful activities with sets of LEGO DUPLO bricks in six bright colours, children practise a range of skills. 

Brick Sequence from the Six Bricks is one way to increase engagement for development: “You will challenge your sensory-motor skills, using your eyes and hands to coordinate movements. Physically, this helps us to balance, walk and run, but also refreshes our energy and thinking while we enjoy being active.”

There is a strong case to be made for using play-based approaches in learning as it can certainly ignite the love of learning, develop foundational literacies, and create joy-filled learning experiences.

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