school

From a teacher to a parent, this is one of the best things you can do to help your kids learn.

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When parents find out I used to be a primary school teacher, there is one question I get asked overwhelmingly ahead of all the rest. Particularly when it comes to those who have children who are only a few years away from starting primary school.

What can I do to give my child a head start when it comes to starting school?

It seems everyone is always in a big race to get their child ready for school and when you think about it, it’s not hard to understand why. Navigating those years before your child officially enters formal education can be a minefield.

You’re battling conflicting advice from those around you such as your own parents, your grandparents, your brothers, sisters and friends who had children before you. Not to mention the advice you get from those who helped you through your pregnancy such as midwives, nurses and doctors. Then throw into the mix support systems such as mothers’ groups and Google, and all of a sudden, you’re being bombarded with information from every angle about what is the ‘best’.

Not to mention the fact that you also need to do what feels right for you when it comes to raising your children. You want to feel your way through, forge your own path and learn the ropes on your own, which is both understandable and reasonable.

"What can I do to give my child a head start when it comes to starting school?" Image via iStock.

So when most parents receive my response to this question, they usually breathe a great big sigh of relief as though I’ve given them validation that what they’re doing is enough. A smaller proportion look at me in bewilderment, waiting for the punch line as though I’ve told them some hilarious joke.

But when it comes to doing the best for your child in the lead up to starting ‘big school’, it’s really quite simple. Get ready for it because here it comes and it can be reduced down to just three simple words.

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Let them play.

Yes. That’s it, it’s that simple. Just let… them… play.

The theory behind learning through play was largely founded by Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist who developed the sociocultural approach to cognitive development. So what to us may appear as a normal development for the way children entertain themselves is actually a complex process that affects all aspects of a child’s life. As such it is weaved through The Board of Studies’ syllabuses, which are a series of outcomes categorised by subject for what every student needs to achieve during their time at school.

Learning through play impacts how children make sense of the world, develop their thinking skills and how they ultimately learn a language. As a result there are a variety of ways in which learning through play builds a healthy mind.

Here are the main areas that are developed my learning through play:

1. Language development.

When children play with items such as dolls, they engage their imagination through play. Through the use of dialogue they begin to role-play a story and learn to give different characters different voices within their story. They make sense of what is going on around them through the process of ‘inner speech’ in which they talk out loud to themselves. This helps them not only to develop their vocabulary but also navigate the world around them.

"When children play with items such as dolls, they engage their imagination through play." Image via iStock.

2. Social interaction.

Vygotsky argued that cognitive development takes place socially. This can be observed when children mimic or copy a parent’s behaviour and speech. Through this sort of play, children begin to regulate their own thought processes. When children play with other children, they further learn how to navigate their relationships with others in a way that it is socially acceptable and understand emotions. This includes sharing, interacting and communicating effectively.

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3. Problem solving.

Vygotsky believed that a child’s performance depended on instances when they were playing alone and when they were assisted by an adult, such as a parent or teacher. He referred to this as the ‘zone of proximal development’. In other words, if a child is using bricks to build a tower and an adult with more experience helps, then the child is able to enter a new zone of development and problem solving, otherwise referred to as ‘scaffolding’. This helps to connect their current level of problem solving to a more developed one.

For me, the first hand proof is in the years I spent teaching, particularly Early Stage One and Stage One for the NSW Department of Education and Communities. These years are otherwise known as Kindergarten, Year One and Year Two.

"Vygotsky believed that a child’s performance depended on instances when they were playing alone and when they were assisted by an adult, such as a parent or teacher." Image via iStock.

I would regularly work bricks of free play into my weekly schedule and I can tell you, those two words were guaranteed to make all of the children in my classroom cheer with excitement. There’s something about those words that kids love. To them, it was a time when they could experiment and let their imagination run wild.

I would usually set up five or so activity stations at each desk in my classroom and rotate groups of three to five students at a time. The activities could involve building using LEGO Duplo, developing a scene through dress up, identifying shapes using geo shapes, molding using play dough, making patterns through beading, drawing or cutting. Students would then spend five to 10 minutes at each station before rotating with their group.

Speaking to Reading Specialist Teacher, Anita Byrnes, who has over 11 years’ experience in teaching K-6 about the subject of learning through play, she found it also had wonderful benefits within the classroom.

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"I would regularly work bricks of free play into my weekly schedule." Image via iStock.

Byrnes found that the biggest benefits of learning through play are evident in the first few weeks of Kindergarten. She says at her primary school, students are often given 45-50 minutes of developmental play each day where they’re given a range of different activities that they can choose from.

“It enables the development of social skills, especially in the early days of a new environment in Kindergarten. I’ve seen children make friendships and cooperate with each other successfully during play,” Byrnes says.

“Play further fosters imagination and creativity as well as the building of fine motor skills. This is especially important when it comes to grasping objects and strengthening their fingers and hands. It also assists in developing hand-eye coordination by connecting things and placing things in the correct spot,” she adds.

Byrnes has also found great opportunities for learning experiences and lessons during developmental play, explaining, “While students are involved in developmental play teachers will often go around and ask for example when connecting blocks, “Can you make a pattern for me?” or “Can you count these blocks for me?” so that incidental learning through play occurs. It’s what I’ve seen a lot of.”

So when it comes to preparing your child for school, the best thing you can do is give them access to the tools they need to participate in play. Being present and involved when your child is playing by asking them questions is also another great thing you can do to give them a helping hand when it comes to learning.

How do you help your children to learn?

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