The importance of play and early learning in children
By Ma. Lourdes de Vera-Mateo, UNICEF Philippines' Chief of Education
I have been working in education for most of my professional life having been with the Department of Education (DepED) and in UNICEF as Chief of Education.
My work has allowed me to travel to the remotest of villages and even up the mountains to better understand the educational challenges faced by children. I am fortunate to actually see our work in practice when I visit learning centres and schools and when I get to interact with the children, parents, day care workers and teachers.
One such experience was when I met three-year-old Ber Gei from Mindanao. Ber Gei and her family live in Marilog district, one of the many remote communities in Davao. Ber Gei and her family are members of the indigenous community of lumads, who are native to this part of the Philippines.
Like the majority of indigenous people around the world, the lumads are isolated and poor, living on the fringes of mainstream society with very limited access to basic services, including education.
In 2008, UNICEF together with the local tribal leaders in Ber Gei’s village established a home-based early childhood care and development (ECCD) center in her community. UNICEF provided training, supplied learning materials such as books, educational toys, musical instruments, and drawing materials to give children like Ber Gei the foundation they need to prepare them for school. Today, this home-based ECCD center still exists in Ber Gei’s community and it has helped young children age 3-5 prepare for formal learning.
Meeting children like Ber Gei keep me connected to the many challenges children face in remote, disadvantaged areas in our country. These experiences give me the impetus to help facilitate and replicate good practices and ultimately, help shape policies to ensure children living in far-flung, remote areas are given the support and service they deserve in order for them to have the best start in life.
I am equally humbled and motivated when I see education development plans bear fruit through dedicated parents, day care workers, and teachers working tirelessly together for the benefit of children. I am continually amazed by a dedicated teacher’s ability to create, innovate and adapt education programs according to the specific needs and limitations he or she faces in teaching. They work tirelessly and at times even go beyond the call of duty.
UNICEF-supported Early Childhood Care and Development programmes promote play-based learning and seek to enhance the curriculum and the capacity of parent/community volunteers, day care workers and kindergarten teachers to create a stimulating learning environment for children. This approach encourages children's natural curiosity to explore, develops creativity and most importantly, provides a positive learning experience through storytelling, role-play, active play, and use of manipulative toys and learning materials. It gives them a solid foundation in basic literacy and numeracy and teaches them to develop focus, learn group dynamics, and share with others. This produces children who are eager to learn and because they are ready for school and able to handle their social interactions with other children, they are less likely to drop out.
Studies in the Philippines show that only 3 out of 10 children aged 0-6 years old have access to day care or any form of early learning. The numbers are much lower in remote and conflict–affected areas where access to early learning is more challenging due to inadequate resources, difficult terrain and low awareness on the importance of early childhood education.
In many rural, remote and disadvantaged areas in our country, parents are generally unaware that various forms of play actually keep children healthy and sharpen a child’s skills in listening, self-expression, observation and other skills for beginning literacy. Play-based learning could be the key to develop an early love of learning, which can improve school attendance, creativity and ultimately, spell the difference between the success and failure of a child when he starts formal school.