Play-based learning leaves preschool students wanting more

How social emotional learning is changing how Cambodia’s youngest students learn

Sina Sam, Chhean Davy and Jesse Lee Gray
Four-year-old preschool student Chhe Vanno (ឆែ វ៉ាន់ណូ) from Kantring Community Preschool beams in front of his house after a home-visit from his teacher.
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sina Sam
16 February 2022

Kratie province, 9 February 2022– “Even when the teachers say there’s no class, he still wants to go to school”, said Ms Dul Sinet, whose son Chhe Vanno attends Kantring Community Preschool near their home. At four years old he is already learning to write and is happily doing basic addition and subtraction. He is also becoming more independent. Sinet said, “In the morning he gets himself up, takes a shower and dresses himself for school. He behaves politely and knows how to properly greet guests in our home.” Sinet is so grateful for her son’s preschool teacher, Ms. Leav Monylak, who is kind, patient and keeps Vanno delighted to learn more every day.

Community preschool teachers, like Monylak, are laying a strong foundation for the learning years ahead, starting with reading, writing, and arithmetic. But their jobs don’t stop there.  They must also teach social and emotional skills, so crucial for their students’ future success in all aspects of life. Further, early education experiences set the tone for how likely students are to stay in school, be excited by learning, and feel integrated into society.

However, stimulating these youngest students takes special skills and not all schools have equal resources. Community preschools fall under commune budgets and management, while public preschools are managed and funded through the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS). While there are more community preschools nationwide, they tend to have limited resources for hiring, training, learning materials and physical infrastructure.

Today Vanno’s teacher, Ms. Leav Monylak, joined 40 other preschool teachers and directors to learn how to help their young students express themselves better, get along with their classmates, and draw out their curiosity through play-based learning. This training is part of an ongoing programme to improve early childhood education in Cambodia across both public and community preschools.

Funded by the Czech Republic and in strong partnership with key ministries and sub-national government, UNICEF is providing support to children under six years old through the Integrated Early Childhood Development (IECD) programme, covering health and nutrition, water and hygiene, education, and social protection. At this stage, the programme focuses on five districts with some of the lowest education and health outcomes for Cambodia’s youngest children. Through the educational arm of the programme, 200 public and community preschool teachers and 80 preschool directors across Kratie and Ratanakiri provinces have been training on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and gaining access to a broad peer network through quarterly technical meetings. Preschool children in these districts benefit from improved teaching practices, engaging learning materials, and safe and colorful playgrounds.

Ms Leav Monylak, 24, Vanno's teacher at Kantring Community Preschool, shows off the school’s recycled playground, provided through the IECD programme.
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sina Sam
Ms Leav Monylak, 24, Vanno's teacher at Kantring Community Preschool, shows off the school’s recycled playground, provided through the IECD programme.

Monylak started teaching at Kantring Community Preschool in 2017 and has received SEL training since 2019. The focus on understanding how to handle anger or other emotions has led to transformative changes in her classroom, particularly when students learn by singing songs or playing games.

“Through applying what I’ve learned in classroom activities, I teach my kids how to respect and help each other, like learning to wait until their turn or sharing snacks, and to resolve issues without fighting. They play together more peacefully and have become interested in other people’s feelings. For example, if they see a friend is sad about something, they tell me, and I can check in with that student.”

She is looking forward to further building her ability to develop play-based activities and learning materials to take the impact even further. Although she has to pay out of her pocket for travel, she joins the in-person quarterly technical meetings whenever she can. “I’m grateful I can reach out to peers and ask for advice in the quarterly technical meetings and as in needed in our Telegram group”, she says.

Ms Bean Socheata, 40, School Director of Resource Preschool O Russey 2, shows the brightly colored murals meant to create a welcoming and playful environment for learning.
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sina Sam
Ms Bean Socheata, 40, School Director of Resource Preschool O Russey 2, shows the brightly colored murals meant to create a welcoming and playful environment for learning.

Ms Bean Socheta has worked in early childhood education for 21 years. She was a public preschool teacher for 17 years before stepping into the role of public preschool director four years ago. As a public school director, she is tasked with making sure her teachers have all they need to look after the wellbeing of their students. She too has seen the school-wide changes in the students and parents as the SEL approach has been applied. But she’s been happiest to see the impact of the quarterly technical meetings. The teachers and directors pool their resources to solve problems together, broadening their ability to support the social, emotional, and cognitive development of their students. “My teachers and I learn so much from hearing about issues in other schools and finding common solutions.”  She encourages more community preschool teachers to join these meetings and backs the idea ofmeeting more often to strengthen their peer learning.

“Thanks to continued support from the Czech Republic, we are seeing the growing capacity of teachers who work with the youngest children in the most vulnerable provinces in Cambodia. The techniques they are learning help students build a strong foundation for success in school but also in future work and community life”, said Hiroyuki Hattori, UNICEF Cambodia’s Chief of Education.  “With the leadership of MoEYS, UNICEF will keep working with local communes to ensure preschool teachers and directors have the training and peer network to keep inspiring young learners like Vanno to come to school every day, in good health.”

The preschool teachers in Kratie province are looking forward to the ongoing peer support and additional training on play-based learning activities.