Magical social play and learning moments happen every day in schools all over the world Image Credit: Anna Earl

There is nothing quite like spending time in a Kindergarten or Foundation Stage class and observing the joy and intensity of learning that takes place when children play freely together.

Over the course of my many years in education, I have had plenty of opportunity to see first-hand the magic of social play in classrooms across the globe. I have also had the privilege of working with some of the best educators in the world. I have heard the passion in their voices as they recount their experiences of Early Years education.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have regrettably — yet understandably — seen a significant increase in the number of parents choosing to home school their younger children or take them out of regular school in favour of distance learning.

This is, of course, an entirely justified reaction given the very real worries that many parents face about their children falling sick, keeping vulnerable family members safe, or managing challenging economic circumstances.

Pandemic lessons

What the pandemic has taught us, however, is that there is usually a trade-off, because it’s simply not possible to replace all the wonderful things that happen in a bricks-and-mortar school. At least not in full.

The benefits of young children attending school for face-to-face learning cannot be emphasised enough, especially at such a vital stage of their development.

A wealth of empirical research shows that a quality early education improves children’s chances of success later in life, because it feeds and takes advantage of those crucial phases of brain development.

Young children need to be given opportunities to be imaginative and socialise, as these are what foster creative and well-rounded individuals. When young children play and learn together, they develop a whole range of social and emotional skills, including patience, discipline, compromising, problem solving, decision making and sharing.

They learn to cope with conflict and how to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour, they appreciate the importance of respecting others, and they develop the confidence to know their own capabilities and operate independently. These are all hugely important attributes, and they are all developed through social play.

I recall a story told to me by a fellow educator that brilliantly illustrates just how advantageous it is to have children learning together side by side in a shared environment.

Joy of group learning

It involved a group of children aged four and five who were engaged in a project on air flow, exploring the use of tools and objects to manipulate air. The teacher found an old blow-up mattress with a puncture and presented it to the class, who quickly worked out what it was and how to inflate it.

After much diving around on the mattress, engaging in rough and tumble play and lots of storytelling, the children noticed that by the end of the day the mattress had deflated again. Immediately, they got to work pumping it back up and arguing over who had the best technique.

When the children returned next morning, the air had once more gone out of the mattress, and they were most perturbed.

One bright child announced that the mattress must have a hole in it, so they began inspecting it for signs of a tear, searching from one corner to the other using magnifying glasses, placing their ears on sections of the mattress while others squeezed and prodded it. This led to the first aid box being raided and hundreds of band aids being plastered all over it.

Eventually they upgraded to masking tape (because the plasters kept peeling off in the humidity) and then electrical tape, which proved to be the most effective. At one point they even whipped up some papier-mâché and pasted it all over the mattress.

The task went on for several days, and the children did at last find the hole (although by the time they were finished exploring and experimenting there were several more).

While parents will no doubt appreciate the ingenuity and boundless enthusiasm of the children in this story, the point is that the learning involved in this simple problem-solving project was tremendous.

Resilience and grit 

The children together used all their senses to investigate, they collaborated to find the root cause by taking on different roles, and they communicated at length throughout.

They were resourceful in asking their parents and teachers what to do, and they used resilience and grit to arrive at a solution. They did this because they were motivated to learn and the learning experience was meaningful to them.

Such magical social play and learning moments happen every day in schools all over the world, orchestrated by experienced and well-trained teachers who work hard to develop relationships with their students that promote the behaviours, attitudes and skill sets that children need for the future.

In this way, school provides not only an environment where inquiry, exploration and investigation is encouraged, but also all-important structure and a sense of belonging to a community.

Midway through last year’s lockdown in the UAE, when all students were learning remotely, some of the main concerns expressed by parents were lack of routine, socialisation and, in turn, opportunities for movement, communication and language development.

By the age of five, children should generally have a vocabulary of approximately 2,500 words, and being in school increases the opportunities children have to learn new vocabulary, whether during play, mealtimes or storytelling.

Moreover, teachers are not mere bystanders; they are trained to ask thought-provoking questions that draw on children’s experiences and motivate them to extend their language skills, ultimately strengthening their cognitive development.

The return to face-to-face teaching, learning and socialising can only be a good thing — most of all for those young children whose development so greatly depends upon it.

Matthew Burfield is the CEO of GEMS Founders School — Dubai, and Vice President — Education, GEMS Education