Prioritise play in our preschools

COMPLAINTS from primary school teachers that young children are being pushed through preschool without a solid grounding in basic reading, writing and comprehension skills keep growing louder.

Despite the government’s admirable efforts to raise the standard of early childhood education in Malaysia, the number of children who struggle to attain age-specific learning benchmarks keeps increasing.

On the surface, this situation makes no sense. The National Preschool Standard Curriculum (KSPK) is a well-researched roadmap that, on paper, matches its most celebrated contemporaries in Finland and Canada.

What is going wrong then?

In 2017, the “International Journal of Early Childhood Education Care” published a highly-cited study on preschool curricula co-authored by researchers from Malaysia and the Philippines that shed some light on the issue.

The study, titled “Comparing the Kindergarten Curriculum Framework of the Philippines and Malaysia,” identified four key problems with preschools in Malaysia—incompetence and the lack of training in teachers, inadequate English skills, the “wrong” use of play, and poor parental involvement.

But what do they really mean?

First, the study concluded that Malaysian preschool teachers have limited training in making lessons more “interesting and fun”. It is indeed true that in the majority of preschools, teachers only prioritize finishing activity books and worksheets.

Such practices do not leave space for the development of “pre-literacy” or “pre-numeracy” skills which educators should employ before a child can read, count, or even hold a pencil. For instance, the recognition of sounds to vocalize letters contributes to their reading fluency and expansion of vocabulary. And the ability to understand sizes, shapes and patterns gives children a head-start in basic arithmetic.

How can teachers do it? Well, through play of course, where children learn shapes using concrete objects and not flashcards, and such learning is reinforced by “scavenger hunts” to find these shapes in their environment.

The incompetency among teachers, however, cannot be helped if their poor attitude underscores the problem. As I’ve written before to the shock of many, Malaysian preschool teachers who genuinely care about their profession are few and far between. For many, early childhood education was not their first or even second career choice.

When we don’t do what we love, isn’t it natural to resent going beyond the call of duty? This is one of the major reasons why the otherwise stellar play component of the KSPK curriculum is scarcely implemented.

Parental indifference also plays an outsized role in diluting the effectiveness of KSPK. It is unfortunate that many treat preschools as glorified daycare centers and not incubators of future academic excellence.

They routinely drop off and pick up their children either too early or too late, and have begun demanding recently that the timings of preschools align with their work hours with scant regard for the rest and bonding needs of their young ones.

Moreover, many wholly ignore their co-responsibility in educating children and the great value of positive reinforcement at home. What is worse, they resist the idea of play in preschools as a valuable tool for learning, believing instead that rote memorization is most useful in higher education.

Yet, it is hard to completely fault them when the labor market still relies on test scores as its primary filter of fresh graduates instead of evaluating their potential to innovate—something Malaysia desperately needs as it transitions into Industrial Revolution 4.0.

This leads to the last major issue highlighted in the journal: the “wrong” use of play. You see when we hold up Western countries as role models of early childhood education, we conveniently divest our thoughts of the massive influence of play-based learning in raising their quality of pre-schooling as a whole.

Time and again, academic studies have proven the “right” use of play multiplies the ability of young children to excel in higher education and social life, not least because they develop the right sides of their brains first.

When structured toward specific objectives, play-based learning raises children’s language skills through conversation and curiosity, supports “pre-literacy” and “pre-numeracy” that rapidly improve their reading, counting and writing abilities, develops the social and emotional skills imperative to building and maintaining healthy relationships as adults, and most significantly, turns them into creative problem-solvers.

Unfortunately, while KSPK is a fantastic curriculum, its monitoring and evaluation have routinely been found wanting.  If play has failed at preschools in Malaysia, we all share the blame for preventing our children from achieving their full potential.

Which is why we must act now. First and foremost, there is a dire need to lower the student-to-teacher ratio so we can move from quantity to quality in early childhood education. This will require the regular influx of new and better trained teachers.

Next, public awareness campaigns aimed at breaking the negative stereotypes surrounding play-based learning are also very important. Parents and teachers must realize that when structured around clear objectives, play is far more beneficial to the mental and emotional development of young children than rote memorization or mindlessly filling worksheets.

Above all, the government must develop a detailed set of guidelines on play-based activities that are standardized throughout KSPK preschools and rigorously monitored.

Such a policy will have two major benefits. First, it will free up teachers to focus on effectively conducting play-based learning activities instead of first having to brainstorm and map them. Two, it will signal to parents that standardized play legitimately helps their children learn better.

For the above reasons, prioritizing play in preschools is common sense and we must act now for the good of all Malaysian children. This is our national duty

By: Jerrica Fatima Ann.

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