Playful learning helps children develop social and emotional skills

  • Urgent attention to children’s learning is needed amid global challenges that threaten future generations.
  • Traditional education systems must be transformed to incorporate the development of social and emotional skills.
  • Now is the time to act – children need these skills to navigate an uncertain and unstable world, made worse by the impact of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.
  • Playful learning is one of the most effective ways for children to develop social and emotional skills.

We have an urgent responsibility to ensure that the next generation is equipped with the holistic skills they need to navigate a complex and uncertain future. Children’s development has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF estimates that this has impacted over 1.6 billion learners, and we are now facing a global early childhood emergency. However, the global education recovery offers a unique opportunity to rebuild better education systems and integrate the development of social and emotional skills into education systems.

Yet we cannot do it alone.

Reforming education systems is a complex process, especially in countries facing political, economic and societal challenges. Policy makers around the world can draw inspiration and lessons from the efforts of other countries to help them implement sustainable systemic reform.

The LEGO Foundation Inaugural Report, “Rebuilding the Systems – National Histories of Social and Emotional Learning Reform” details the experiences of six pioneering policy makers from governments who attempted to reform their education systems to better improve the social and emotional skills of learners. Policymakers in Australia, Colombia, Finland, Peru, South Africa and South Korea have used a variety of strategies to implement key reforms at the national level.

We have learned that several factors can contribute to the success of reforming education systems.

Reform is a journey, not an event

Systems reform is not marked by a single event or moment; it takes a lot of time, effort and stakeholder engagement, as well as compromise and negotiation. Incremental steps determine long-term impact.

In Australia, the first National Curriculum Board was created in 2008, but the reforms were not completed until 2015. The reforms established Australia’s first national curriculum, moving away from the federated system. Policymakers ensured that the new system looked outward in the context of new technological advances and the complex global pressures that Australian children would face in their lifetime. Today, more and more schools and teachers are promoting new activities to enrich children’s learning. For example, reaching out and engaging with local communities, better equipping them to become complete citizens.

Recognize playful learning when navigating complex national contexts

There is no doubt that education reform can be extremely complex, especially in countries experiencing political instability, violence, extreme levels of poverty and scarce resources.

Traditionally, for example, the Colombian education system did not emphasize the development of social and emotional skills, but rather the repetition of content. Policy makers have noticed the value of role play in helping children appreciate different perspectives and play is now actively used in the curriculum to help them develop holistic skills. It is hoped that the promotion of social and emotional skills will help reduce the high levels of violence in society and thus help to train a new generation to guide society in a positive direction.

Similarly, in Peru, policy makers faced an education crisis as in 2012 it ranked 65and out of 65 OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) countries. To improve, they reflected on how to deepen competence-based learning in schools, thereby facilitating broader development of children’s abilities. They focused the program on the “whole person”, and now children learn to self-regulate their emotions, live democratically and contribute to the common good, while creating a strong personal identity through project-based and playful learning.

Unite in your differences – motivations may differ, but the goal remains the same

Globally, the motivations of policy makers for implementing social and emotional skills in their curricula vary. However, children and society systematically benefit.

The interest in equipping children with these tools is visible in South Africa. To galvanize society around common educational ideals, the National Education Coordinating Committee championed what was called “people’s education” and gave voice and content to what it should look like in a post-apartheid system. This was necessary because people’s self-concepts and self-image had been undermined by decades of systematic discrimination and exploitation. The ‘Life Orientation’ subject, implemented as part of the curriculum reform, aims to strengthen positive self-concept and self-image through a thematic area called ‘Building Relationships’. Children learn to foster a positive relationship with themselves, others, and society at large. Play is often used in South African schools as a mechanism for teaching these core values.

In South Korea, the motivation for reform was different. The pressure on students to succeed academically to enter prestigious universities has sacrificed their personal development and involvement in extracurricular activities. Policy makers believed in the transformative power of education; they implemented a series of reforms to shift from a test-based education system to one focused on educational diversification. They created vocational schools as a viable alternative to college, and as that option became more attractive, the pressure to attend prestigious universities eased. This addressed an economic need for more creativity and diverse skills in the workplace, while improving children’s well-being by reducing stress.

All stakeholders must be involved in the design and implementation of systemic reforms

All stakeholders must engage in the reform process. Teachers, in particular, need to be involved from the start so that policy makers can integrate their experiences and expertise, provide adequate support and improve their knowledge of why these skills are important for children. It is also essential to engage with parents and guardians to identify what they think children may want and need from the education system.

In Finland, policymakers were concerned about low levels of motivation and well-being in schools. The National Agency for Education was tasked with designing and facilitating the reform. They ensured that a range of stakeholders were involved by posting all comments received during public consultations on a publicly accessible website. When people understood the purpose of the reform and participated in its formation, there was room for more ownership and acceptance.

Across the six countries included in the report, one thing is clear: children thrive when they are given the tools to develop essential social and emotional skills. Now is the time to act, and it must be the responsibility of education systems and key global stakeholders to equip children with these skills. It cannot be left to chance or family circumstances. Children are the future, and we need to ensure they have the breadth of skills needed to deal with complex challenges and uncertainty in an ever-changing world.

Click on here to see the full report.

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