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How learning through play helped teachers support children’s wellbeing as schools reopened

As children returned to school after pandemic-related closures, many teachers found that play helped to ease them back into a learning routine. Their experiences add to mounting evidence from research on how learning through play can develop skills such as creativity and collaboration.

Teachers and experts shared their perspectives in a session at the 13th Policy Dialogue Forum on innovation organised by the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030, in Kigali, Rwanda earlier this month. Watch the session on replay here.

What is learning through play?

Ruth Mbabazi, from Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)’s Let’s Learn through Play programme, explained: “Play is joyful – children express themselves with pleasure. Play is socially interactive – children communicate, they build relationships, they can work together. Play is iterative – they test and retest what they know, by investigating different concepts.”

“There is evidence that these characteristics help children to learn better and deeper”, added Lieve Leroy from VVOB - education for development. “Learning is not just acquiring academic knowledge and skills, but stimulating the development of a diverse set of domains such as emotional, social, physical skills. Play facilitates such holistic development.”

During lockdowns, many children lost opportunities to play. In the session, teachers shared how play-based learning had been critical in rebuilding mental wellbeing, enabling them to express their imagination and curiosity again, and develop persistence and dispute resolution.

In the words of teacher Eric Ndayishimiye: “Play-based approaches created space for collaboration. They helped to encourage self-regulation by controlling one’s behaviour, emotions and thoughts in pursuit of long-term goals.”

But while parents instinctively understand the value of learning through play for very young children, not everyone understands that this applies equally across all levels of education. Parents often support play in preschool, but resist teachers’ attempts to introduce it at primary level and above. 

Bringing parents onboard

When schools were closed, play with parents helped children to continue to learn at home. As Hugh Delaney from UNICEF Rwanda explained, “As schools reopen, a shared understanding of learning through play can strengthen interactions with parents, and be an entry point to engage parents more in the education of their children.” 

This was also preparing children for future shocks. By playing with children, parents help them develop a breadth of skills such as planning, self-monitoring, self-control,  time management and self-regulation. These all help to contribute to the resilience of a child, so they are less affected by crises.

Finding the right way to reach parents is key. Lieve Leroy recounted VVOB’s experience of working with the Women’s Union in Vietnam to get communities to support teachers to introduce more play-based classroom learning.

Teachers also need the support of a wider policy environment – from local to national level, from curriculum development to teacher training to budgeting to inspection and assessment. This requires a shift in mindset, away from the traditional idea that teachers are masters of knowledge, and towards seeing them rather as facilitators of learning. It requires all actors to see children as competent actors in their education, rather than empty vessels.

Teachers at the session noted the importance of explicitly relating a shared vision of child development to the education system and curriculum. Support for participative processes to develop tools for learning through play that reflect local experiences and cultural heritage was also highlighted.


Teaching the technique 

Key questions include whether to make play-based learning optional or compulsory, what in-service training is needed, and how to assess child competencies more broadly than literacy and numeracy.

As Lieve Leroy added: “Teachers need an environment where they can make mistakes, where they can try things out and feel safe to do so. Inspection and assessment need to be aligned with that approach.”

Session participants discussed the role of technological innovation, with consensus that it can be valuable in enhancing learning through play. Animations, multimedia and gamification can bring concepts to life and allow children to learn willingly and unconsciously.

Clement Kabiligi, of the Imbuto Foundation, noted how well-designed apps give children the right incentives: “The apps recognize and praise children for getting answers right, but even when they fail to get the right answers, they don’t get frustrated because the apps creatively motivate them to try again until the answers are correct.”

Back to the basics of play

However, there was also agreement that technology is not essential to learning through play. In the words of Emmanuel Murenzi, of the International Education Exchange (IEE): “You don’t have to have gadgets. I play hide and seek with my kids… . We help parents to understand, let’s go back to the basics – games, songs, sports, all that.”

Session participants identified the competencies teachers need to implement learning through play. Clement Kabiligi mentioned being funny, as “without fun, play-based learning would look like just a checklist of things, it wouldn’t be engaging at all”. David Rugaaju, of Right to Play, gave examples such as “the ability to create a playful environment” and “knowing how to allow the child to have agency to lead in their learning process”.

To develop these competencies, teachers need effective support and an enabling environment,which means everyone around them – from institutional stakeholders to parents in communities – must be sensitised to the importance of learning through play.

Photo credit: Save the Children