Play-based learning raises children’s language skills through conversation and curiosity. FILE PIC

COMPLAINTS from primary school teachers that young children are being pushed through preschool without solid foundations in basic reading, writing and comprehension skills keep growing louder.

Despite the government’s admirable efforts to raise the standard of early childhood education, the number of children who struggle to attain age-specific learning benchmarks keeps increasing.

On the surface, this situation makes no sense.

The National Preschool Standard Curriculum (KSPK) is a well-researched roadmap that, on paper, matches its most celebrated contemporaries in Finland and Canada.

What is going wrong then?

In 2017, the “International Journal of Early Childhood Education Care” published a study on preschool curricula co-authored by researchers from Malaysia and the Philippines that shed some light on the issue.

The study, titled “Comparing the Kindergarten Curriculum Framework of the Philippines and Malaysia,” identified four key problems with preschools in Malaysia — incompetence and the lack of training in teachers, inadequate English skills, the “wrong” use of play, and poor parental involvement.

But what do they really mean?

First, the study concluded that Malaysian preschool teachers have limited training in making lessons more “interesting and fun”.

It is true that in the majority of preschools, teachers only prioritise finishing activity books and worksheets.

Such practices do not leave space for the development of “pre-literacy” or “pre-numeracy” skills which educators should employ before a child can read, count, or even hold a pencil.

For instance, the recognition of sounds to vocalise letters contributes to their reading fluency and expansion of vocabulary. And the ability to understand sizes, shapes and patterns gives children a head-start in basic arithmetic.

How can teachers do it? Through play of course, where children learn shapes using concrete objects and not flashcards, and such learning is reinforced by “scavenger hunts” to find these shapes in their environment.

The incompetency among teachers, however, cannot be helped if their poor attitude underscores the problem. As I’ve written before to the shock of many, Malaysian preschool teachers who genuinely care about their profession are few and far between.

For many, early childhood education was not their first career choice. This is one of the major reasons why the play component of the KSPK curriculum is scarcely implemented.

Parental indifference also plays a role in diluting the effectiveness of KSPK. It is unfortunate that many treat preschools as glorified daycare centres and not incubators of future academic excellence.

They routinely drop off and pick up their children either too early or too late, and have begun demanding that the timing of preschools align with their work hours with scant regard for the rest and bonding needs of their young ones.

Many ignore their co-responsibility in educating children and the great value of positive reinforcement at home.

What is worse, they resist the idea of play in preschools as a valuable tool for learning, believing instead that rote memorisation is useful in higher education.

Yet, it is hard to fault them when the labour market relies on test scores as its primary filter of fresh graduates instead of evaluating their potential to innovate. This leads to the last major issue highlighted in the journal: the “wrong” use of play.

When we hold up Western countries as role models of early childhood education, we divest our thoughts of the influence of play-based learning in raising their quality of preschooling as a whole.

Time and again, academic studies have proven the “right” use of play multiplies the ability of young children to excel in higher education and social life, not least because they develop the right side of their brains first.

Play-based learning raises children’s language skills through conversation and curiosity, supports “pre-literacy” and “pre-numeracy” that rapidly improve their reading, counting and writing abilities, develops the social and emotional skills imperative to building and maintaining healthy relationships as adults, and turns them into creative problem-solvers.

Unfortunately, while KSPK is a fantastic curriculum, its monitoring has routinely been found wanting.

If play has failed at preschools in Malaysia, we all share the blame for preventing our children from achieving their full potential.

Which is why we must act now. There is a need to lower the student-to-teacher ratio so we can move from quantity to quality in early childhood education.

Next, public awareness campaigns aimed at breaking the negative stereotypes surrounding play-based learning are also very important.

Parents and teachers must realise that when structured around clear objectives, play is far more beneficial to the mental and emotional development of young children than rote memorisation or mindlessly filling worksheets.

Above all, the government must develop a detailed set of guidelines on play-based activities that are standardised throughout KSPK preschools.

Such a policy will have two major benefits. First, it will free up teachers to conduct play-based learning activities.

Two, it will signal to parents that standardised play helps their children learn better.

For the above reasons, prioritising play in preschools is common sense and we must act now for the good of all Malaysian children. This is our national duty.

The writer is a Malaysian early childhood educator with a special interest in technology and its impact on young children