Learning through Play - the Heilala Way!
All children to benefit from culturally-relevant, high-quality early childhood education based on the new national curriculum in Tonga
Learning through Play - the Heilala Way!
Brightly-coloured, hand-made learning materials decorated the walls of the classroom from where excitable voices were shouting.
Piola Veatupu, Early Childhood Education (ECE) teacher at Pangai Government Primary School in Ha’apai, had just started to make playdough from flour, water, oil, salt, and food colouring. About 15 children were sitting in a circle with huge smiles on their faces, eyes fixed on the teacher.
“Lolo!” shout the children in harmony as the teacher points to the oil on the table and asks in Tongan language what it is called.
As Piola begins cutting the dough into pieces, she asks the children to start counting. Not only do the children learn to count through this play-based activity but they also learn to name the shapes she makes and the colours too.
Piola, like all 200 ECE teachers in Tonga, was trained on the new ECE curriculum framework called ‘Learning through Play the Heilala Way’, which uses play-based approaches through a Tongan cultural lens and is named after Heilala, the national flower of Tonga.
The Heilala curriculum was rolled out nationally in Tonga through a training of all ECE teachers, including those in the most remote island schools in the country, on the implementation of the new curriculum. The training covered how to structure daily activities, establishing different play corners in the classroom and building positive relationships with children and their parents.
ECE teachers are also exploring how locally available materials can be used to support the new curriculum's rollout.
“Look, we used the local materials to make these play areas,” says Vulase Hafoka, Education Officer at the Ha’apai District Education Office and also a mentor to Piola and many other ECE teachers in Ha’apai. She shows a small traditional house made using the local dry grass, sandpits from the beach and numbers on the walls carefully crafted using traditional ropes. The use of the local materials in the community ensures the sustainability of this new curriculum and its implementation.
She goes on to explain that before the new curriculum, there were some ECE activities happening informally in the community with community members opening up their own homes to provide education for the younger children. But the importance of ECE was not well understood, and most parents did not send their children to these centres. Untrained teachers who were providing initial ECE classes, were limited in their knowledge and understanding of developmental stages of children and most often implemented formal lessons inspired by primary schooling, rather than play-based early childhood approaches.
As part of an ongoing effort to strengthen ECE in Tonga, the Ministry of Education and Training established 40 new government ECE centres, and developed this new national ECE curriculum framework to orient quality, relevant ECE for all centres, including government and community-based.
Vulase’s passion to provide quality learning for children from an early age translates to her own actions. She actively mentors and supports the ECE teachers on the island.
“I am the first ECE teacher in Ha’apai and first ECE Officer in Ha’apai,” she says proudly.
One important aspect of the new ECE curriculum is that it is meant to be inclusive and responsive to the individual needs of each child, while promoting examples of positive discipline and collaborative problem solving.
”There is a boy who joined our class early this year and he kept on having trouble with his friends,” says ‘Ana Malofu, who has been an ECE teacher for four years now and is one of the master trainers who supported the roll-out of the new curriculum. ‘Ana explains that whenever the boy was unable to explain himself well, he would use bad words and actions towards his friends.
In the training on the new curriculum, ‘Ana learned how to use positive discipline, and that it nurtures trust in relationships, increases motivation, and even supports learning at school and beyond. Through the patient and loving care of ‘Ana, the children in her class are building positive relationships with each other and learning together through play.
Since then, whenever the boy in her class acted like this, ‘Ana has counseled him and supported him to reflect on his actions. She has gradually managed to build his trust and now he comes to her for support when he has disagreements with his classmates. Now, his favourite place is the Story Corner where there is a library for children to pick up storybooks and read.
“He has now made friends and calls them to read stories together,” says ‘Ana.
Early childhood development
For children under 5 in Tonga, data from 2019 show a 15 per cent difference for children who are developmentally on track in physical, literacy, numeracy, socio-emotional learning for those attending ECE, compared with those who are not (Tonga MICS-EAGLE 2019). Ongoing increases in quality due to the roll-out of the curriculum are expected to further increase the number of children developmentally on track across all domains. This further shows the importance of attending ECE and setting a strong foundation for learning for children.
UNICEF provided technical and financial support for the development and roll-out of this new curriculum together with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.