March 27, 2020

Playful Home Learning Series #3

This is the third in a series of posts about playful teaching and learning during a time of prolonged school closures. That we are talking about play and playfulness during this global crisis doesn’t mean we don’t take the situation seriously. We are deeply saddened by the ongoing loss of life and devastating toll this outbreak continues to take. Yet as educators who understand the importance of learning through play, we feel a responsibility to help playful learning continue for our children who are learning at home.


Traditional games and creative technologies to support learning at home

Kgopotso Khumalo and Steph Nowack are PoP researchers from South Africa. They work at the NGO Care for Education and are coaches for the PoP online course Let’s Play. Events in South Africa unfolded at a pace where many schools did not have time to create detailed learning plans. Below we share excerpts from a conversation with Steph and Kgopotso about the situation and ways to support playful learning in South Africa, though we think their ideas have relevance to other countries as well.

Playful learning is even more important in times of crisis

Our children are worried. Kgopotso was watching the news at home and her eight-year-old son said to her, “Please don’t let them talk about corona, please don’t let them talk about corona.” Of course, the newscasters talked about the virus, and he cried out, “No!” It’s a scary time for all of us.

Playful learning is especially important in times of crisis. Think about what children feel when they are learning through play: ownership, curiosity, and enjoyment along with safety and a sense of belonging. All positive emotions that can help them process the crisis and help children focus on learning.

Children want to play. They also want to learn. Without schools' timetables and myriad rules, the paradoxes between play and learning environment diminish. We have the responsibility to continue children’s academic learning and an opportunity to enhance their agency through playful experiences. Indeed, at this moment, we need them to take a greater role leading their own learning and what better way than through play - something they already want to do.

We need options for learners without high speed internet

While Google Classroom and Zoom are great tools, because the majority of South African families don’t have access to high speed internet, we need other ways to engage children in learning. These options include:

Traditional games and activities

There are a variety of traditional games that foster learning. The South African game, Morabaraba, is a good example. A game for two players, the goal is to place three chips in a row and prevent your opponent from doing the same. There is a lot of strategy and mathematical thinking involved. And the chips can be anything: can lids, stones, bottle caps, etc.
Cooking is an activity that children can take part in and learn playfully. There is measurement and chemical transformations. And they and their caregivers can tinker with recipes, tastes, and smells.
Mother and son at play: Kgopotso and her son, Kgotso, in a game of Morabaraba

Technologies children have access to

While not having access to high speed internet, many South Africans can connect with social media including Facebook and Twitter. At the moment, WhatsApp is the go-to messaging system in the country. This platform is well positioned for educators to leverage in supporting playful learning (in other contexts there may be other platforms on which to rely).

We can imagine educators posting short (2 minute) videos or written invitations on WhatsApp that introduce a concept and end with an open-ended question or suggestion for a playful activity to explore the concept further.
Some of these invitations should be related to the curriculum. If the Grade 4 lesson is on the parts of plants, learners could be asked to collect a specimen and study it.
These invitations can help extend and bring to life lessons in the Department of Basic Education handbooks that children were sent home with. For example, in maths the workbooks have children writing out patterns. A video could invite learners to create patterns out of recycled or household materials.
Teachers could curate online galleries where learners post their ideas (e.g., a pattern they created or a drawing of the plant they collected). Learners could share comments and support each other’s’ learning in discussion forums.  

When accessible, invitations could connect learners to other online learning resources and opportunities.

Liam Nilsen from LEGO Foundation has created a StoryCity challenge where children can use natural or recycled materials and contribute ideas to a growing global community. And the Exploratorium is great source of playful learning opportunities.
During South Africa’s 21 day lock down, Care for Education is posting one playful learning activity per day based on the Six Bricks program. Invitations could connect to these activities.

All of these invitations could be aimed at learners or their caregivers (providing guidance on how to help children playfully engage in learning activities).

These invitations can be created by an individual teacher for her class. Groups of educators could create resources for their school. And district and ministry officials can support the sharing and dissemination of particularly good resources.

In our ideal world, TV and radio would also be used to support playful learning. What if each morning children were given a challenge —to make something, write to someone, investigate part of their neighborhood, or solve a problem. Imagine children excitedly gathering around the radio at the start of the day to listen to the day’s playful learning challenge.

Talking to children about the pandemic

In a real way, the current situation makes learning school subjects more relevant and meaningful: understanding the mathematical representations that explain how the virus might spread; understanding the biology of how the disease effects the body; knowing the chemistry of how to make hand sanitizer. For younger children, understanding the role healthcare professionals play in keeping people healthy. Along with being worried, children are interested and curious about all things related to the virus. Knowledge is power and can help children in managing their fears.

And like the scientists who are working tirelessly to understand and bring this outbreak under control, learning can be a great intellectual adventure that we can take part in together. We can’t leave our children in the unknown. Rather, we need to inform and educate them as citizens of the world. Playful learning is a great tool towards this goal.