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“Playful learning, learningful play”

In April this year, Dainfern College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, hosted 300 delegates from all over South Africa at a two-day early childhood development (ECD) conference themed, “Playful Learning, Learningful Play”.

The keynote speaker was Galina Dolya,1 an international Vygotskian expert2 who has collaborated with prominent thinkers and students of Vygotsky at the
3 Eureka University in Russia. After moving to the
United Kingdom (UK), in collaboration with these great minds, Dolya then wrote a curriculum for young children based on social-constructivist principles that is playful and prepares a robust foundation for later academic learning.
In his welcome to delegates at the Dainfern conference, Lebogang Montjane, the executive director of ISASA, affirmed and appreciated the attention to practice in this phase of development which, studies have demonstrated, significantly affects both academic and other later life outcomes. Neuroscience indicates that brain development is most rapid in the early years and when the quality of stimulation, support and nurturance is not optimal, according to studies by the World Economic Forum,4 development is compromised.

What teachers of very young children have always known

The 21st century has brought us an immense amount of new knowledge and understanding of learning and the science of learning.5
This science, in my view, has profiled and validated the practice that ECD teachers have always valued and understood, but often may have had difficulty articulating and defending.
In the past, learning was understood as gaining mastery of a significant amount of knowledge, usually in the form of content that was literally transmitted by a teacher. However, many teachers who were trained in and passionate about the ECD sector, knew that this formalised, top-down approach did not suit children, who needed to experience their world in a very
tangible and concrete way.
Social constructivism, 6 therefore,
made complete sense to teachers in the ECD sector as this is exactly how they witnessed young children learning. Master teachers have also intuitively understood the need to scaffold learning and the development of the child and simultaneously integrate skills, knowledge and character. Research that indicates that little children are extraordinarily creative and curious but that these traits actually diminish as they progress though school,7 has driven the focus on creativity and curiosity – both critical 21st century skills – in education.
The explosion of technology into the 21st century workplace is now demanding a whole new set of skills: knowledge is simply not enough anymore, and creativity, collaboration, innovation, communication and problem solving are imperative skills. And, finally, in the ECD sector, effective teachers’ approaches are being validated.

Galina Dolya, teacher extraordinaire…
In 1988, with the advent of Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Lev Vygotsky’s students, who had secretly continued Vygotsky’s research into thought and cognition, offered courses for teachers at the Eureka University in Russia. Galina Dolya was head teacher at a Moscow school at the time and was incredibly excited about the thoughts and ideas that she discovered in the intensive courses she attended at Eureka.
In England, in 1993, David Higgins, who was also a head teacher at a school in London and part of a curriculum development group, decided to travel to Russia for a Vygotskian Conference at Eureka University. He was amazed by the Vygotskian teaching and the motivation, skill, competence and engagement he witnessed in the Russian students. He noticed that Dolya’s colleagues were teaching students about learning, whereas in Britain at that time, he was witnessing British teachers simply teaching knowledge.
Knowing that brain development in the early years is critical, Higgins set up a nursery school within his school in 1994, and invited Dolya to run it. Then in 1997, Higgins took early retirement and he and Dolya set up a private nursery school in Hertfordshire with Dolya as head teacher. For 10 years, in collaboration with prominent Russian researchers, Dolya and Professor Nickolai Veraska worked on the Vygotskian Key to Learning programmes.

Recognising that play is an essential component of childhood and that we need to live and celebrate the essence of childhood fully, Dolya has developed a curriculum that develops cognitive, behavioural and communicative ‘tools’ within a creative, playful and engaging context.

“Children cannot learn if they are either dormant or defensive”.

Preschool education is enriched in short bursts of structured activity that can be incorporated into any preschool without compromising the free and exploratory play that is critical in the early childhood years. These unique activities align to the developmental needs of preschool children whilst helping young children become eager and motivated learners who are well placed to be able to access the more formal abstract learning process that begins in Grade 1.
When we discovered the Vygotskian approach to early childhood education at Dainfern, we were very excited by its inherent possibilities. It’s playful and engaging, carefully scaffolded, and builds the vocabulary, language, reasoning, sequencing, classification, conceptual language, psychological tools and higher mental functions that enable the cognitive development of the child and prepare the child to learn. As the Dainfern College Grade 0 teachers put the approach into practice, they found it built capacity and a foundation for learning in the child that simply amazed them.

ECD all about becoming ready to learn through play

Dainfern College, in collaboration with Key to Learning Africa, was therefore thrilled to host Galina Dolya, international Vygotskian expert and inspirational early years teacher and researcher, as the keynote speaker at their ECD Conference.
At this event, Dolya gave delegates the theoretical frameworks and key principles that form the very essence of learning, a love of learning and self-regulation in a social, playful context. Dolya was able to illustrate exactly how Vygotsky’s proximal zone of development enables us to understand scaffolding and the construction of knowledge in emotional, physical and academic realms from thinking as an action, to thinking representationally and then to abstract reasoning using symbolic tools, provocations and questioning in a way that is appropriate and playful for the young child. Symbolisation and the construction of knowledge in this way prepare the child for coding and abstract and sequential thought.
Instead of ‘hot-housing’ children and bombarding them with information, or taking them to adulthood too quickly, Dolya proposes using play, which promotes and develops abstract thinking, as the transition to adulthood, thereby amplifying childhood, rather than accelerating our childhood too quickly. Being ready for school, says Dolya, does not necessarily mean being able to read and write, but instead being ready to learn how to read and write. The learning abilities precede the learning and our goal should be to develop a love and hunger for learning in our children, rather than simply filling their heads with knowledge.
Humans are social beings and it is only through others that we become our full selves within a spirit of joy and fun-filled learning. Dolya gave delegates the tools to be intentional, to consciously and deliberately develop the creative, learning and thinking potential that is inherent in all children. She gave attendees permission to celebrate the playfulness and imagination that are inherent in every teacher. Dolya encouraged teachers to keep a ‘bird’s eye view’ on all their children. She succeeded in leaving delegates with this bird’s eye view that succinctly showed them the importance of language, reasoning, questioning, problem-solving, planning, sequencing and the development of conceptual, symbolic, cognitive tools within a playful, imaginative and engaging context that is aligned to the development of the child.

Other conference speakers equip delegates with new tools

Other speakers at the conference provided insight into children’s play so that as watchful facilitators, mediators and professional participants in the learning process, teachers can enrich and scaffold the learning that is taking place and that is being expressed in their schools in the social and emotional domain, in the language domain, and in the physical and musical domains.
Lara Schoenfeld, an occupational therapist who founded “Play Sense” and co-founded “Nanny ’n Me” with Megan Faure8 has a passion for play. She has observed that children of today do not know how to play. Her experiences have led her to believe that the influence of technology, an extraordinary academic focus, overscheduling of children, structured extramural programmes and busy parents have all led to play being compromised. Security concerns in environments outside the home have led to less safe outdoor play, as well as very little of the mixed-age play of yesteryear. Schoenfeld spoke of the role of the adult in scaffolding imaginary play in very young children and the development of confidence, language, motivation, and self-regulation through this process. She made it clear that learning precedes development and teachers play a key role in scaffolding this learning through the careful development of both play and of a playful, language rich, imaginary and creative environment.
Faure, who is also a specialist in sensory integration and author of many best-selling baby care books, helped teachers at the conference to understand and facilitate different sensory profiles within their classrooms. She gave delegates strategies that would enable them to ensure that the children in their care were in an optimal state of arousal to learn. Children cannot learn if they are either dormant or defensive and so the teacher, understanding the sensory nature of the child, scaffolds both the task and the environment to enable optimal learning and engagement.
Both Faure and Schoenfeld spoke of the critical development of the supersenses: imagination, executive function and self-regulation.
Dr Rinda Blom,9 director of the Red Shoe Centre, play therapist and author of The Handbook of Gestalt Play Therapy,10 provided delegates with captivating insight into children’s emotional expression while at play. Blom provided insight into the critical role teachers play in the emotional development of the child. A single teacher can effect change in a traumatised child. Blom also showed teachers how they can scaffold the development of emotional intelligence and problem-solving within play. Children’s play is also therapeutic and teachers have the power to make a difference as they accept and mediate the child’s feelings that are being expressed in their play. Blom explained that teachers can also facilitate and scaffold the development of social skills and empathy within the context of play. She emphasised the importance of observing children and of reflection by the significant adults in children’s lives. Consistency is critical in this respect as it provides mirroring for the child.
Sylinde Roodt, speech and language therapist at Dainfern College, provided insight into the importance of the language that teachers can use to facilitate language development within the classroom. The language and communication styles of the caregivers in children’s lives are significant. Roodt motivated for early intervention to optimally improve outcomes as well as for a playful, scaffolded, integrated approach to language and the young child.
Professors Josef de Beer11 and Marthie van der Walt12 of the University of the North West gave teachers an understanding of the role of puppets in the classroom. Puppets provide a playful medium for accessing the affective, language, intrapersonal, interpersonal and academic domains.
The final speaker at the College was Elsa Venter, the Junior Preparatory music teacher at Dainfern College. She explored the playful use of music to impact on creativity, sequential memory and behaviour regulation in the classroom. She gave teachers simple, effective strategies to use to plant the seed of music in all our children and to enhance social and emotional regulation in classrooms.

Passion and purpose

Delegates who attended the conference were grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from an international 21st century pioneer in early childhood education, Galina Dolya, and the other inspirational speakers who shared their vision for playing with passion and purpose. Everyone left feeling inspired and empowered, with a new understanding of the science of preschool education, as well as with many practical tools and ideas that could be implemented in their schools.

Patti Blackhurst is the principal of the Junior Preparatory at Dainfern College.

1. See:
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csikszentmihalyi/ and
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10. Blom,R.(2006)TheHandbookofGestaltPlayTherapy:PracticalGuidelines
for Child Therapists. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
11. See:
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Category: Winter 2019

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