April 17, 2021 Emma Sharp Dalton-Brown

Play Better, Learn Better: How Children & Adolescents Can Benefit from Play throughout the COVID Pandemic & Beyond

Play Better, Learn Better: How Children & Adolescents Can Benefit from Play throughout the COVID Pandemic & Beyond

By: Emma Sharp Dalton-Brown

“We know that children who play are happier, smarter and healthier. We are on a mission to change the way the world thinks about play. Every moment of play is a moment to learn.”

~LEGO Group and LEGO Foundation 

 Many parents might be worried about their children being left behind and how they will ever catch up to where they are supposed to be academically. In fact, there has been some discussion in the media about keeping all the kids in Jamaica back and getting them to repeat their present Grade next year. This possibility has not been ruled out by the Ministry of Education, Youth & Information, as at the beginning of this year, January 2021, Education Minister Fayval Williams said, “As students come back to school, as we do assessment tests and so on, we will know where students are, and if there is a requirement then that is what will happen. But there has been no policy so far or no broad-based decision about that just yet.” However, this reality remains: teachers, parents and students are struggling.

There are those of us who would not be happy for our children to repeat the year, but would pushing our kids through a traditional academic education at this stage be the right path to take? Should we enroll our children into some semblance of summer school before the new academic year begins in September 2021? Or, should we take the time to focus on their psychological and social wellbeing?

According to a briefing from the British Psychological Society, “Where additional school time is a strategy, it should focus on supporting children through socialisation and play. The notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone.” (https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/closing-attainment-gap)

So, do Jamaican children have only ‘one shot’ at their education? Rather than aiming to get them back into the classroom for formal learning as quickly as possible, shouldn’t we instead be looking at how to reduce their stress and how they could safely get together with their peers for play?

I’ve had several long conversations recently with a Strategic Advisor at the Lego Foundation, Zelda Yanovich, who says, “Kids cannot learn if they are stressed as they won’t absorb what they are learning.” She suggests that we “get the kids to a place where they are happy and, in terms of catch up, teach them the principles and concepts of the particular topics they need to understand but reduce the amount of actual facts they have to learn. With the internet becoming universal, you can look up facts online yourself. If children want to know what different dinosaurs used to eat, they can go on the internet. They don’t need their teacher telling them the facts.” Yanovich recommends that during this very stressful time, which has been brought on by the Covid pandemic, teachers find “playful ways to teach principles.”

On their website, the Lego Foundation declares that, “Children don’t learn on their own and they don’t exclusively learn in a classroom. They need scaffolded mentorship and a combination of both content knowledge and lots of hands-on practice to navigate tricky situations. The retention of knowledge is no longer sufficient to thrive.” (https://www.legofoundation.com/en/about-us/global-programmes/education/).

While teachers’ hands might be ‘tied’ because education in Jamaica still follows a very traditional approach, surely there are several ways to skin a cat. Why not teach the curriculum in a more creative, engaging and practical style, which would release some of the pressure on both themselves and their students.

While researching on the Lego Foundation’s website, I learned that the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (the Education Commission) “Predicts that, by 2030, 825 million children in low and middle income countries will reach adulthood without the skills they need to thrive in work and life.” To give this some perspective, 825 million children is actually 50% of today’s youth generation. This is exceptionally worrying for Jamaica and reiterates the need to visit a different approach when it comes to education.

So how does one make such a huge change when students’ placements into a higher level institution are completely dependent on their exit examinations? It would be an immense job to change the system at this point. Do we really have a choice, however? The pandemic has literally put a stop to regular face to face schooling in Jamaica and the exams that go with it. Maybe we don’t have much of a choice and now is the time to make this massive shift.  Perhaps it is easier to do than we think.

“The point of education, much like in play, includes learning certain skills like communication, which broadens vocabulary, and how to manage feelings,” says Ms. Yanovich, who can lay out the benefits of play in every way you can think of and in ways you have not imagined. One of the most important skills is social play, which “has a therapeutic effect for children. They relive a situation, like an argument at home, and imagine themselves in those roles, which help them to deal with it.” This is a good way for them to deal with their stress.

When it comes to kids, playing face to face helps them build connections and trust with their classmates. Due to the pandemic, they are communicating with classmates via a Zoom or Google meeting, where communication is vastly different to what it is in person. They are also comparing themselves to their peers academically, which is stressful when they are in distance learning because they are doing this without the bonds of trust that they would usually be able to form in person. There is literally a glass between them, preventing the formation and nurture of social emotional skills.

Executive function is also developed during play and is a skill that is needed to plan, adapt and change plans. When a young child is building a train track and there is a large stone in the way, the child learns to build the track around the stone. Impulse control also falls under the umbrella of executive function and helps children thrive at school in simple situations like when a teacher asks all the children to sit in a circle for reading time. These skills transcend into adolescence and adulthood, as we need to know how to problem solve, adjust with changing rules, discard distractions, stick to assignments and control our responses. These are the tools we take with us into our jobs, and into life in general, in order to function well.

The Co-Space Study, led by Dr. Polly Waite and Prof. Cathy Creswell from the University of Oxford in England, is an ongoing study looking at the impact Covid is having on families, with particular emphasis on mental, emotional and behavioural difficulties. “It is showing a massive increase in parents reporting behavioural issues for their children, which can be signs of anxiety or depression,” Yanovich reveals. I can certainly relate to this because I have noticed a change in the behaviour of my boys, who are eight and eleven. She advises parents to “set up a space to give them permission to play, give them a visual cue and make it feel like something is different.”

 Immediately after coming off my most recent video call with Ms. Yanovich, I called my kids into the kitchen and created a space for them to prepare whatever they wanted. They made mint chocolate chip ice cream and chose two other recipes from a Star Wars cookbook they had been given. This activity allowed them to read through the book, communicate with one another, and me, about the treats they each wanted to make, negotiate their final choices, collect and measure ingredients, take turns, follow cooking instructions, respect safety rules and execute the ‘project’ they were working on together, which all culminated in a delicious achievement that made them both proud. They used play skills they had been learning since they were babies. The activity made them happy. Seeing my pride made them happy. Witnessing my happiness made them happy, and vice versa. The ‘serve and return’ play, which Yanovich had told me about in reference to a game of ‘peekaboo’ with a baby, was mimicked in this situation. This form of play relieved them, and me, from some of the Covid stress we had been feeling. It broke us all out of the habit of feeling stressed.

Rebecca Tortello, Education Specialist at Unicef Jamaica, concurs that “Play is important at all ages, even for adults, as it is a stress reliever.  It also creates priceless family memories.” She pointed out that play is used by therapists because often issues emerge in play and indicate whether or not further investigation and psychosocial aide is warranted. Tortello went on to say that play develops gross and fine motor skills, builds teamwork and is a good conduit for presenting and revising learning material, which brings us back to school. Shouldn’t we consider amending the Jamaican curriculum by presenting learning material in a new and playful way so as to reduce children’s stress over being left-behind because of the pandemic?

Yanovich also reveals that the impact of play on a child’s growth is astounding. “When reviewed, studies have shown that while good nutrition increases growth in children, good nutrition and play together increases growth even more. The more children are stimulated through learning and playing, the more they will eat. The density of their brains will therefore increase. So, if you’re not feeding and stimulating children, then their brains do not grow,” she explains.

What about face to face and outdoor play versus virtual play? Ms. Yanovich says, “Solely playing on a tablet takes away from some of the life skills you learn from outdoor play and sports with others because, when on a tablet, you can literally choose to play on your own and you do not have to negotiate with anyone else.” Working as a team and through problems are essential skills. It is a lot harder to walk away from an in-person game of hide-n-seek or from football training than it is to shut down your tablet when a game of Among Us or Fortnite is not going your way. That said, some online games, like Minecraft, do facilitate team building and cooperation as two or more of you can decide what type of virtual world to make and then build the world together. Another fallout from online gaming to consider, however, is that “Kids are missing out on touch and smell, which one gets from in-person play,” Yanovich iterates. The smells of fresh-cut grass, approaching rain, and even fear, are lost when you are online, yet so often memories are triggered by smells. The same goes for touch, but right now this is simply not possible.

The evidence for promoting play as a critical tool for learning is all around us, but now it’s up to stakeholders – parents and teachers alike – to convince the Ministry of Education, Youth & Information that children and adolescents can really benefit from play throughout the Covid pandemic and beyond. If our children play better, they will learn better.