A child learns through play at an ECD centre in KZNThere is a growing amount of evidence globally which supports that play is fundamental to learning in the first 1000 days of a child’s life.  For young children aged under 6, playing is a way to develop social and cognitive skills, as well as confidence.

Incorporating play into an early learning curriculum, however, is not as easy as it may seem to the uninitiated. True play is spontaneous, voluntary, it engages children’s imagination, and is, above all, fun.  Facilitating play on an ongoing and regular basis for a group of children requires skills, not always taught during early childhood development (ECD) or teacher training.

A new e-learning platform, introduced last month, is attempting to change this.  PLAY is a free online training course aimed at ECD practitioners and foundation phase teachers, initiated by our partners, Cotlands, along with UNICEF, The Lego Foundation and South Africa’s Department of Basic Education.

“PLAY doesn’t replace existing formal training, but complements it,” says Jackie Schoeman, CEO of Cotlands.  “It’s an advanced course, which practitioners can do in their own time.  It is designed to be practical; it gives ideas on how to turn the theory into practice at the end of each module,”

“PLAY is part of a much bigger movement of reintroducing play-based pedagogy into our schools and ECD centres,” she adds. “Ultimately, we want to influence the way new teachers are trained and evaluated.”

Play-based learning is already supported by the National Integrated ECD Policy, approved by Cabinet last year. However, transforming the way ECD centres and foundation phase classes are taught will be a process, requiring attitude shifts from all stakeholders.

“We also have to change the minds of parents who still believe that a completed worksheet equals a day spent learning.  We want them to understand that play is as fundamental to their children’s early education, as formal teaching.”

Jackie says that the decision to offer the course on a mobile platform was considered, and backed by market research. “We needed a way to reach as many practitioners and teachers as possible. Training at scale is very expensive, and so we went with a mobile platform which is accessible on any phone with an internet connection.”

“E-learning is a big shift from the way training is traditionally delivered in South Africa, but it’s one we feel we need to make. It’s common practice elsewhere in the world,” she adds.

The biggest obstacle to accessing PLAY will be data costs, but Jackie says that the course has been designed to be consumed in parts, each of which only requires a small amount of data to download.  The Department of Basic Education is offering free Wi-Fi at its teacher training centres around the country, to practitioners wanting to download modules.

So far, PLAY has attracted a fair bit of attention from practitioners and teachers. Jackie expects take-up to really fly with the start of the new academic year in 2017.  All Cotlands Early Learning Facilitators and SmartStarters, including those who are facilitating playgroups supported by Ilifa in the North West, will be taking the course.

Registration for PLAY is free and open to anyone working in ECD or foundation phase teaching. Simply SMS “PLAY” to 30594.

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