May 31, 2019

Morning Meeting at the Mfesane Early Childhood Education Centre: Indicators of Playful Learning in Action

Ben Mardell

In March I had the pleasure of visiting the Mfesane Early Childhood Development Centre. Mfesane, which means compassion in isiXhosa, is located in an informal settlement in East London, South Africa. The experience confirmed that the Indicators of Playful Learning: South Africa have something to offer the country’s educators.

The Mfesane Early Childhood Development Centre

At Mfesane we were greeted by director Ms. Vezi. I was then able to spend time in Nontsikeleto Mabhoza’s classroom. Ms. Mabhoza teaches 33 three and four-year-olds in a room that is approximately 12 by 15 feet. By American standards there isn’t much stuff in the room. There are three bookshelves: one with 12 books, one with a similar number of stuffed animals, and one with approximately 60 wooden blocks.  

The block shelf at Mfesane

I used the Indicators of Playful Learning: South Africa as a lens through which to view what I was seeing at Mfesane. The indicators were developed last year by Kgopotso Khumalo, Steph Nowack, Lynneth Solis and myself through observations, interviews and discussions with 11 South African teachers. The indicators aim to answer the question: what does playful learning involve in South Africa? Through our research we identified three categories—ownership, curiosity, and enjoyment—that describe the nature of learners’ experiences as they build understanding, knowledge, and skill through playful learning. For a full description of how the indicators were developed and what they involve please see our working paper.

Indicators of Playful Learning: South Africa

Soon after my arrival at Mfesane, Ms. Mabhoza began morning meeting. The children sat in the circle and followed a routine they seemed very familiar with. The meeting began with a prayer. The children then chanted the days of the week and the months of the year. The meeting was in isiXhosa with a good dose of English, and the group moved seamlessly between the two languages. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (in English) was followed by the children walking around in a circle, calling out “We are Marching” as they stamped their feet. Frere Jacques in isiXhosa was next. Throughout, all children seemed involved. They sang with gusto. Often Ms. Mabhoza watched them with a smile, letting them set the pace for the songs and chants.

I was delighted to see many of the indicators of playful learning “light up.”

Enjoyment. There was smiling and laughing and singing as the children participating actively. It seemed that they felt safe and were having fun.

Ownership. The children knew these songs. They sang with confidence and collaborated with each other. They seemed proud and enjoyed being part of the group (part of something bigger than themselves).

What didn’t light up, what I didn’t see, was curiosity. I did not see the children considering a variety of solutions, discussing or debating, asking questions or imagining.

This is not to say that curiosity is never activated at Mfesane. I was only at the center for a short time. Nor am I saying that using the indicators will magically transform the center. More toys and books and higher salaries for staff certainly have a role here.  

What I am saying is that the indicators might be helpful to Ms. Verdi and Ms. Mabhoza as they think about their circle time—how to keep the feelings of ownership and enjoyment and try to activate curiosity. Perhaps a song where the children would have to suggest different animals to complete verses. Perhaps the children having to decide different motions to use as they marched around in their circle. Of course, the educators at Mfesane know far better than I what would activate their children’s curiosity. What I am saying is I hope these 33 children have opportunities to create, experiment, and imagine.

Dr. Wycliffe Otieno, head of UNICEF’s South African Department of Education and Adolescent Development has written:

Project Zero’s Pedagogy of Play  is demonstrating that playful learning is real and practical. From the glittering cities like Pretoria to the fringes of suburban East London, South African learners can experience playful learning; that it is deeply embedded on Ubuntu, and it is embraced by educators and children alike. While we continue to position the education system to build and inculcate the essential skills for a changing world, playful learning, rooted in Ubuntu, is a key facilitator of the 4Cs.  What PoP is doing is to help systematize this intrinsically African way of learning, unleash its potential, nurture the requisite capacities of educators, and enrich it with new knowledge on the theory and practice of teaching and learning, including its role in problem solving, localization of content, among others. I believe that in due time, we shall be able to share with the world what we have learnt in South Africa and that our children will be better off being able learn in the most effective way: by making learning FUN.

My short time at Mfesane has me agreeing with Dr. Otieno. As the current phase of Pedagogy of Play: South Africa comes to an end, my hope is that a planning tool based on the indicators (stay tuned for a link!) will help educators at Mfesane and around South Africa unleash the power of learning through play.