"I’m not sending my child to school for them play all day. They should be learning properly!"
Have you ever overheard comments like this? Or read something similar on social media? Perhaps your teaching methods are questioned during parent-teacher conferences? Wherever in the world you teach, play-based learning can be met with scepticism.
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The idea that children learn best through play is not new, with the likes of Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori, Reggio Emilia and even the UK’s Department for Education promoting the value of play in early years education. However, this message doesn’t always seem to have made its way to parents.
You can be forgiven for finding this frustrating and maybe even a little insulting, given the time and consideration that has gone into setting up your classroom environment and the learning experiences that are available.
I can certainly admit to having experienced these feelings. In international schools, this can be particularly challenging, as parents have their own cultural experiences of what learning "should" look like.
However, over the past few years, I have begun to look at these interactions (there will always be a handful each year) as opportunities to develop the partnership between school and home for our youngest learners.
In the process, I have managed to turn some of the most cynical of parents into our greatest supporters.
Below are five points about play-based learning, which, if shared and implemented with your parent community, can improve your parent/teacher relationships and create greater buy-in.
1. The language of play
Young children from different backgrounds may not be able to speak the same language as each other but they understand the language of play.
Through providing play-based opportunities for learning, children learn important skills such as turn-taking, non-verbal communication, conflict resolution, creative thinking and problem solving (the list could go on and on). Language is not a barrier for success here.
2. Facilitating opportunities
Play invites curiosity and engagement on a far deeper level than being talked at by an adult in large group situations.
The teacher’s role is to create opportunities for high-level knowledge acquisition and practice through skilful conversations and questioning, and through providing meaningful and interesting resources.
3. The benefits of familiarity
Play can help to build children's confidence and contribute towards their greater participation in class.
It is something that they are familiar with before starting school, and this familiarity can be hugely beneficial when encouraging even the most nervous or shy learners to become comfortable in their classroom environment.
4. Bringing parents on board
Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you share photos of what’s happening in your class on a blog, newsletter or social media app, use this opportunity to explain what is happening in those images.
Always add a caption that links the play in the photo to what learning is taking place. For example, have you taken a photo of children building a tower?
Explain that they are developing their social and communication skills by working together, and exploring spatial awareness and balance through the choice of shapes and blocks used.
5. Everyone’s welcome
Invite parents into the classroom. This might seem a bit daunting at first, but the more parents see the learning in action, the more they will see the value of play.
Be on hand to answer questions, and perhaps support the more sceptical parents by explaining what their child is doing and how it links to learning goals before they get the chance to jump to conclusions. You may find that, in time, you need to do this less and less.
Remember, parents genuinely want the best for their child and a misunderstanding of how children learn best contributes to their feelings towards play at school.
Work with your parents and help them to understand so that it becomes a partnership, not a battle.
Gemma Cass is an early years lead at International Community School, London