What Pre-Schoolers Need. Visiting Gecko&Garden Pre-School in Phnom Penh

After the visit the team reflected on the impressions gained
After the visit the team reflected on the impressions gained
This year, several of our learning centers in Cambodia have expressed their interest in setting up pre-school English programs in their communities. While pre-school may seem like a simple and easy program to set up as children are small and their level of English will not require a highly advanced teacher, in reality, pre-school requires specialized knowledge and understanding of Early Childhood Development and Education as well as ensuring the duty of care for very young children.

By Monika Nowaczyk – We were very fortunate that Gecko & Garden International pre-school in Cambodia opened its doors to BOOKBRIDGE and allowed four staff members from our learning centers to observe and participate in the school activities for a week in September. Community Heroes Vannak, Charanay, Sothika and Sopheak spent one week in Phnom Penh, observing and supporting classes in the morning and reflecting on their observations in the afternoon. This was the first chance for them to see high-quality, play-based teaching and learning in action. They were very impressed by the teachers at G&G, by their skills, their creativity and their patience with the children. They learned about positive discipline techniques and how to create lessons that ensure that all learners’ needs are met. As Vannak said, “I loved my time at Gecko very much. Gecko teaches children how to share, how to be independent. It has wonderful teachers and great facilities and materials and the students feel like they are at home.”

The importance of play-based learning
“Play is the highest form of research” Albert Einstein
Early childhood education (ECD) in the form of pre-school or kindergarten programs is an important first step into schooling for children aged three to five years of age. In such early learning settings, children learn social skills like how to cooperate, share and be part of a group. They learn vital pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that help them when they enter primary school to be successful at reading, writing and mathematics. They develop fine and gross motor skills as well as independence and emotional management.

Adapted to children's needs: the learning area
Adapted to children’s needs: the learning area
However, educators who are inexperienced in ECD programs sometimes take a purely academic approach when implementing pre-school programs; they treat pre-schoolers like big kids, putting them in adult-sized furniture, expecting them to sit still for up to 2 hours at a time, looking at the board and copying text, repeating the teacher or attempting to solve mathematics problems beyond their capabilities. However, children at this age have very different development needs and abilities and the methodologies and approaches in ECD settings need to take these into account.

Scientists make new discoveries through testing ideas, trying new things, exploring the world, thinking, reflecting and so on. They do this in a LAB. Children make new discoveries through testing ideas, trying new things, exploring the world, thinking, reflecting and so on. They do this through PLAY. When children are focused on play, they do not even realize they are learning and their learning is natural and joyful. If you have ever watched a 3-year old discover a new insect or focus deeply on a picture they are drawing, you know the pure happiness they have in their discoveries and achievements. Because children at this age learn best through play, pre-school programs should be built around this natural tendency.

Balance of Playing and Teacher-led Activities
A play-based curriculum does not mean allowing children to play by themselves for the entire time they are at school. Rather a balance of free play and guided play, combined with teacher led activities like singing, dancing, reading stories, exploration and so on should be provided in short time periods. Children at this age have short attention spans and need a change of focus approximately every 15-30 minutes.

What pre-school shouldn’t be, is the standard chalk-and-talk approach seen in classrooms of older children, in which a teacher stands at the front and students passively listen and copy. Children need physical activity and movement and much research supports that this actually helps to improve their learning.

Guided Play
Guided play is a key element in the play-based classroom. Guided play is different from children playing freely on their own as the teacher initiates the activity and sets a time limitations as well gently guiding children toward a specific learning outcome. The teacher, however, does not lead or direct the play and facilitates only when necessary. For example, the teacher may initiate a tower building activity, asking the children to try to build a tower as tall as they can. The children are free to choose which blocks they use, how they stack them, whether they work in pairs or on their own. As they experiment, fail and succeed in their attempts, they learn how to best build their tower.

Four Community Heroes from our learning centers in Cambodia joined the field trip
Four Community Heroes from our learning centers in Cambodia joined the field trip
The teacher can ask questions to stimulate their learning, to guide them in a new direction and to support them to complete the task. By asking open ended questions such as “What would happen if you put more blocks in the base of your tower?” the teacher is not telling the children what to do, but is inviting them to discover the answer on their own.

Play-based learning does not mean children can’t learn literacy and numeracy skills either; this approach to ECD does not eliminate learning how to count or learning the alphabet. However, the way these skills are taught is through play. Children aren’t made to sit for long periods copying and writing letters. Instead they learn through drawing pictures of the letters, tracing them in the air, on each other’s backs, through a card matching game or by going outside and identifying different objects that start with the sound of each letter. And by learning through play, through using all the senses and adding physical activity where possible, children actually learn more effectively than if they were to sit and memorize by rote.

Allow Children to Learn in the Best Way they Can: Through Play
The four BOOKBRIDGE staff saw clearly the power of play in young children’s learning. As Sothika wrote upon reflection, “What I enjoyed the most was to see kids learning through playing. Since I was young, as a Cambodian kid, I was forced to learn and not to play more. I was instructed to study and work hard with less encouragement. But here, I saw something powerful to teach kids by playing. They learned through playing. They are encouraged, instructed, admonished and explained in a polite way.”

Children have 12 years of formal school, during which they will sit at desks for long hours, listen to teachers, copy from the board, memorize facts and figures and stress about examinations. Until they start Grade 1, the best we can do for them is allow them to learn in the way that they are exceptionally good at: through play.

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