Encouraging learning through play and exploration
Article courtesy of Regina Leader Post, written by Irene Seiberling
Deep in concentration, a five-year-old sits at a table moulding colourful bits of clay into fairy-garden creatures. In another room, a youngster sits on the floor carefully stacking small blocks of wood to build a castle. Outside, a couple of best friends — hand-in-hand — play co-operatively on the playground’s slide. And seated around a snack table, preschoolers share trays of nutritious fresh fruit, raw vegetables and a variety of healthy wraps.
Welcome to the Regina Early Learning Centre. Don’t underestimate the importance of play. It’s about more than just having fun; it’s actually a wonderful way to learn.
Just ask people at the helm of some of the province’s leading early learning centres, like Regina’s Mary Ann McGrath and Saskatoon’s Debbie Mercier.
They support providing preschoolers with a play-based environment — encouraging them to learn through play and exploration, as recommended by the Ministry of Education — and helping them develop social skills while they play. This approach to early childhood education, they explain, helps build a healthy foundation, which will bode well for children later in life.
“The key message is how important the first few years of life are,” said McGrath, as she offered a tour of the Regina Early Learning Centre, where she is executive director.
Society as a whole benefits when time, energy and money are invested in early childhood programs, she said, noting for every dollar spent on early childhood, several dollars are saved in future social investments.
“We’d have greater impact if we spent more on the early years, and there’d be much less need to spend dollars (on social programs) later on.
“Really, investments in the early years are kind of an investment in helping children get on a positive trajectory for life,” she said, adding that “by providing a place that fosters healthy early childhood development for vulnerable members of the community, both the children and parents — and the community as a whole — benefit.”
Why encourage play?
“We really do believe that that’s how children learn best,” McGrath said. “All the skills that we want children to develop come out through their play.”
Mercier, director at one of Saskatoon’s five Preston Early Learning centres, and chair of the Saskatoon Federation of Early Learning, echoed those sentiments. And she emphasized the importance of outdoor play for children. Among the outdoor-learning experiences Preston is hoping to offer down the road are forest schools. “We want to be the leaders in that area.”
There’s been a bit of a mind shift when it comes to planning curriculum for preschoolers, Mercier pointed out.
“It’s almost backwards programming ,” she explained. “We build the curriculum around their interests — bugs, for example. The children tell you what they already know and what they want to learn more about. It’s more of an emerging curriculum now.
“There are a lot of changes happening (in early childhood education). There’s a lot of excitement.”
Mercier and McGrath both spoke passionately about their work in early childhood education — a field McGrath has devoted almost three decades to and Mercier has worked in for more than 17 years.
Providing opportunities is the key to successful learning, they agreed.
“If you provide an environment where they have the opportunities to draw, they’ll eventually start writing their name. If you provide the opportunities where they’re exploring, and you’re talking and counting, and you have things that you can sort, they’ll be developing their math skills,” McGrath said.
“You’re asking the science questions, like ‘Why does the snow melt when you bring it into the warm room?’ They’re asking ‘What happens when you plant a seed?’ They’re asking the math questions. They’re building towers — and this is bigger and this is smaller, and this goes under and this goes over. ‘Why does this fall?’ and ‘Why do cars go faster when the slant is different on the road?’ They’re learning all those things. They’re learning the expression things … If you think of literacy in terms of writing, it starts with children scribbling, and then starting to draw, and then making their drawings, and eventually moving to making script … All those things start in the early years.”
Preston’s early learning centres provide a Reggio-inspired environment and programs.
The Reggio Emilia approach to learning, which originated in Italy after the Second World War, involves a movement toward progressive and co-operative early childhood education.
“We’re looking at the children as capable, competent learners,” Mercier said. “We’re providing them with materials that are authentic … having the real thing, as opposed to imitations of real things.”
For example, preschoolers are given real cutlery with their lunch plates. “And they serve their own meals to themselves and pour their own milk … We’re working toward those sorts of things with the kids,” she said.
Parents also benefit from their children’s positive early learning experiences, McGrath pointed out. “Parents can see that sometimes strategies that work at school can also work at home. So there becomes some real empowerment for parents in terms of behaviour management strategies and opportunities to do different things, like spending more time outdoors, and turning off some of the electronics.”
Children should not be denied access to quality early childhood programs because their family can’t afford to send them to an early learning centre, McGrath said. “Probably the most consistent predictor of poor early childhood outcomes is poverty.”
Fortunately, that’s not an issue at the Regina Early Learning Centre, which is targeted at low-income families.
“These children would not be in a preschool where you had to pay,” she said.
The Regina Early Learning Centre is funded by the Ministry of Education, with some of the support services for families coming from the Ministry of Social Services, and a grant from REACH (Regina Education and Action on Child Hunger) for the centre’s feeding program. It’s also receives United Way funding, gets a grant from the City of Regina, has many long-term donors, and does some fundraising.
“We’ve always had a fairly large proportion of children from an indigenous background. But now we see a growing number of children that are newcomers to Canada, and who have that opportunity to be in an environment where they really get a solid start in English and are really more prepared for school,” McGrath said.
There’s a waiting list to attend the centre, which offers its programs free of charge to low-income families, and provides transportation, as well. “We see that as a key piece in making the program accessible to some of the most vulnerable children in our community,” McGrath said.
The Regina Early Learning Centre was established in 1977 by Anne Luke, a kindergarten teacher who was concerned about “children coming to school not really typically ready for school, and also about schools not being completely ready for the children and welcoming to the children and families. So she decided to talk to some parents about interest in setting up a preschool program for children,” McGrath said.
The program started with a small group of parents working with Luke. They rented a small house in north central Regina. They had sewing bees to get together and sew beanbags and create all sorts of different toys. And in the fall of 1977, Luke started the preschool program with half a dozen children.
“It’s really grown from there over time,” McGrath said. “Now we have a really nice range of programs for supporting healthy early childhood development — from prenatal to age five.”
The centre currently offers two home-visiting programs — the Parents As Teachers Program and the Kids First Home Visiting Program.
“Those programs both really pay a lot of attention to the first three years of life and what’s happening developmentally, because that’s the really, really critical time in terms of brain development,” McGrath explained.
“What we really know is that when children have lots of nurturing relationships and responsive parents, and lots of stimulation, the brain grows in healthy ways. And when children experience a lot of trauma, maybe parenting that the attachment isn’t secure, they tend to have much higher chances for all sorts of negative outcomes — everything from failure in school to physical and mental heath problems, to more conflict in terms of entering the criminal justice system.”
The centre is supported by a parent board of governors.
“It really means that we stay close to finding that intersection of what parents want for their children, and what the research is telling us, and what schools are expecting, and really finding the way to bring all those things together,” McGrath explained, adding that unlike the residential school system, “which was about taking children away from their homes and trying to obliterate the parents influence,” today’s early learning focus is on seeing parents as key partners in their children’s education, and recognizing that their goals are important, and “respecting those goals and respecting that culture is critical to building that link — that there’s a strong link between home and school, not a division.”
The Regina Early Learning Centre has 96 spaces available for its half-day program — 48 in the morning and 48 in the afternoon. The preschool program, like public schools, operates 10 months of the year.
The centre’s other programs operate year round.
When the home-visiting program is included, the centre is working with approximately 250 children and their families at any one point in time.
Preston Early Learning Centres operate year round, offering programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. While fees are charged, low-income families can apply for subsidies.
“It’s important for parents to feel that they can access good quality care,” Mercier said.
In her leadership role with the Saskatoon Federation of Early Learning, Mercier advocates for more accessibility through subsidies for parents who are struggling, noting that “It’s a struggle.”
Children should be seen as “capable, competent learners,” McGrath said. “Parents don’t always see that, necessarily. So we can be surprised by what our children are capable of.”
As she walked through the classrooms of the Regina Early Learning Centre during the last week of the semester, interacting with enthusiastic preschoolers, McGrath beamed with pride — like a proud parent.
Making a difference in these young lives is a rewarding experience.
“Parents just feel like their children are learning and growing, and they’re tremendously excited and pleased by what happens with the children here,” she said with a smile. “I think they get a greater sense of what their children are capable of. When you see some of the artwork and you see some of the things they’re doing, it can be awe-inspiring. They’re incredibly talented, creative creatures. And I think sometimes we don’t give them enough opportunities.
“Sometimes, as a community, we kind of lose sight that every child in our community is important. We have to see our collective responsibility for all children, and that when all children prosper, we’ll have safer communities. We’ll have more vibrant communities. We will be the best place in Canada to live.”