Dayll McCahon talks to the Principal of Paekākāriki School, Julia Bevin, about the importance of play-based learning and how that relates to children’s mental health and her PhD. You can also listen to an interview between Megan Salole and Julia about just this!
Did you know the principal of our school is doing a PhD? She told me it is actually a Doctor of Education, a professional research inquiry. I said “Wow – aren’t you busy enough?!” She replied that she’s concerned about the deterioration of children’s mental health in recent years and wondered whether it might be connected to the fact that, while play-based learning is accepted best practice for the young, it seems to stop around age seven, when many people expect children to sit at desks and copy things off the board.
So, Julia’s actual topic is ‘How can a pedagogy of play support learner agency and well-being for eight-to-twelve-year olds?’ (‘Pedagogy’ can be defined as the combination of teaching methods, learning activities and assessment tasks, while ‘agency’ means having a sense of control and self-confidence.)
While ‘play’ brings to mind what children do at break time, this ‘recess play’ is not what play-based learning (PBL) is about. Rather, it is more teacher-directed. The teacher has to know the curriculum requirements and each student’s needs. Then they can set up a suitable scenario in which students themselves decide how to engage. They ask questions, perhaps brainstorming, and work together to find answers. Teachers observe the children and from there plan and, perhaps with the students, co-construct the next steps.
The children have to present their findings, and how they do this might be self-selected or chosen by the teacher for each student according to their requirements. Reflection upon what went well, what didn’t and why, is also an important part of learning how to do even better next time. Reflection by the teacher is also important: if students fail to learn a specifically required part of the knowledge base, for example, then this must be taught directly.
I wondered what this would look like in reality, and Julia recalled a science-oriented session in which our village Fire Brigade was in on the ‘Holes’ scenario. Various substances were put into containers of water, like flour and vinegar, frozen, then buried in the playing field by teachers. Later the Firies arrived with sirens because there were signs of mysterious holes in the grounds and suspicious, unknown substances were involved.
This was a highly effective ‘provocation’ for the PBL, the children’s curiosity being most definitely aroused. It was playful because the fire-fighters were in on the act, and because the children got to dig holes and discover unusual material. They were full of questions, so after expert reassurance that nothing was toxic, and remembering their chemistry learning and skills, they came up with their own plans and methods to identify the strange substances uncovered. Staff provided such things as litmus paper to determine pH.
Julia is motivated by a desire to protect childhood and to foster children’s mental health by the use of play-based learning. She sees it as being woven into the school environment so that students develop self confidence, a strong sense of self, an ability to ask questions and to know how to get answers. Doing a doctorate in Education means her research findings will be widely available and even influential across the education sector. (And in keeping with my own background in both health and education, I found an excellent medical article on the importance of play.)
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