Supporting Play-Based Learning Globally

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Episode #145

We often think about early childhood education in the context of our own geographical area. In this episode, we step outside North America into West Africa with Patricia Falope, founder of the Early Childhood Development Initiative (ECDI). Patricia works to make the play-based approach accessible to the child care community in Nigeria by adapting the method to be culturally relevant in West Africa. She does this by finding points of intersection between the curriculum and home cultures through her Partner to Play program and emphasizes the importance of keeping an open mind to learning as educators.

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Episode Transcript

Patricia FALOPE:

Being open to recognize the knowledge that’s available in communities, going into communities not with a sense of having all the answers and coming to teach, but going in as a learner.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG:

Patricia, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

FALOPE:

Thanks, Ron, it’s great to be here!

SPREEUWENBERG:

We are delighted to have you on the show. Everyone, we have Patricia Falope. She is Director of Early Childhood Development Initiative, a Canadian nonprofit. She has 20 years of experience as an early-childhood educator. [We] would love to start off learning a bit more about your background and why you got so deeply involved in this organization, Early Childhood Development Initiative, or ECDI.

FALOPE:

My background is, I have an undergraduate degree in Communication Arts. I was always very interested in education, but my first undergraduate degree was in Communication Arts. And then I went to England and studied early-childhood education [ECE], after which I began to work in frontline ECE and then moved to Canada, continued in frontline ECE and in community-based Ontario early years centers working with an agency in Toronto. And then [I] got a master’s degree in early-childhood studies, and went into teaching at a college level.

All of that journey made me think about child development for West African children, and made me think a lot about Nigeria and the knowledge of early childhood development. Most important for me was the knowledge of brain development in early childhood, putting that knowledge in the hands of important stakeholders: parents, communities, youth, governments. And that journey, my ECE journey, is what led me to found Early Childhood Development Initiative. I’m the founder and executive director of the organization.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So just so you can give our audience – and me, also – context about the situation, what is the state of early-childhood education, early childhood development in West Africa – or Nigeria, specifically – for those of us who haven’t had that exposure or don’t have that understanding?

FALOPE:

Early-childhood education in Nigeria has largely been traditionally home-based: parents, mothers and nannies, relatives care for children at home. So there is a lot of traditional storytelling and singing and bouncing the baby and strapping the baby at the back and doing things with the baby. Public early-childhood education has started not more than 30 years ago. And public, pre-primary education – which is where we focus a lot of our energy, our investments and resources – started less than seven years ago with governments recognizing the importance of a minimum of one year access to pre-primary education before a child starts a primary school.

So traditionally the home-based, early-childhood education works very well. It is culturally rich, children gain strong language skills. There is, however, a gap when children go to the education system, to the pre-primary education system, because that has been very formal, very rote-learning based, focused on giving children knowledge of the alphabet and numbers, the ability to read and write early. We are very focused on that.

But we know, as early-childhood educators, that there are other more beneficial ways for children to learn, although the research shows that children learn best through play. And that has been ECDI’s focus, putting that knowledge in the hands of the important stakeholders: the teachers, the school boards, the government, to say, “We need to rethink the way we are teaching children in early learning, in the formal early learning setting, and restructure it so that it shifts from rote- to play-based learning.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So is it fair to say that in those early school days it’s almost too structured and too systematic in the way that they’re learning?

FALOPE:

Absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Got it. Okay, cool. And so, was part of your inspiration, then, or motivation, was to take the things that we’ve learned and that you’ve learned here in Canada and abroad and apply that in Nigeria? Was kind of one of the main goals of this?

FALOPE:

One of the main goals was to take what I’ve learned and integrate it with what they do in Nigeria and different parts of West Africa, to come up with a culturally relevant method for implementing early-childhood education. And this idea came from me teaching in Nunavik [Quebec, Canada]. My very first cohort of students in Nunavik, I sat in a class close to a student looking at me. And then eventually one of the students said to me, “That’s not our way.” So I had all the research and studies and the curriculum, what I needed to teach in early-childhood in the child development course, and here’s a student telling me, “Well, that’s not our way.”

So I had to deconstruct all of the knowledge I was bringing and work with the community and my students to figure out what their way is and find points of intersection between their way and the knowledge that I was bringing. And in doing that process my mind kept going to early-childhood education in Nigeria, the centre for children in Nigeria. So as opposed to fulfilling the idea that, “Oh well, I have all of this education in England and Canada and I know how it’s supposed to be and how children are supposed to develop, and I’m coming to Nigeria to teach you how to do it,” I went with an understanding of the importance of working and the iterative process of bringing my little knowledge and taking their vast knowledge and mixing it all together, coming up with strategies and solutions that work.

SPREEUWENBERG:

That makes a lot of sense. And it’s great that you got that lesson through that experience to apply in Nigeria. And you mentioned earlier about play being a key part of one learning that you’ve had that you’re bringing over to Nigeria. And specifically there’s an initiative that I read about that you have called Partner To Play. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

FALOPE:

Yes. Partner To Play, I’m really excited about Partner To Play. It’s a social enterprise store where we carry quality play resources for parents, schools, childcare centres in North America. Actually, it’s online, so it’s open to everywhere in the world. But the key aspect of Partner To Play that excites me is building a collaboration. Every item that people purchase from our Partner To Play store enables us at ECDI to provide quality play resources to classrooms across the Nigerian public pre-primary schools that are switched from rote- to play-based learning.

So traditionally classrooms – pre-primary classrooms and all classrooms – have been… they have their blackboards and they have chalk. So the teacher comes in, the lesson for the day is written, and then it’s taken out, it’s erased. And then the next one is written. And so children recite what’s written on the blackboard and they write their notes and they do their mark and they do a lot of writing and repetitions. As classrooms, as teachers are switching from that model to play-based learning, they’re organizing children in small groups and using materials. They use lots of local materials. There’s rich resources. So there’s local play, there’s bamboo, they use a lot of local materials, plants and flowers to make paint.

But there are some materials that when we recognize that we need to bring in materials such as blocks, puzzles that a key part of early-childhood play-based learning that are not readily available. So the Partner To Play store is set up to provide… we focus quite a large percentage… the Partner To Play store is still growing, but we focus a large part of our resources on providing West African play resources: authentic, hand-crafted, artisan materials from West Africa that childcare centers, parents [and] schools can buy here to increase global awareness in their classrooms and for their children while also partnering with us to supply play resources to the public pre-primary classrooms in Nigeria. So it’s a win-win, empowering play on both sides of the world.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Oh, cool, cool. So if you’re in, let’s say, Toronto and you have an early-childhood education program, you can purchase these materials to help support play-based learning development in your program that would also then support the Partner To Play social enterprise, and then also as part of Partner To Play you will send some of these play-based resources to support learning through play to Nigeria, is that right?

FALOPE:

Yes, to public pre-primary classrooms in Nigeria.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool, cool. And so that would be things that aren’t readily available in their direct environment, because I thought that was pretty cool, because it sounds like they’re using a lot of things that they can find in nature outside the classroom, which I suspect probably then also allows them to make that cultural connection because they are using such local resources in their own community, as well.

FALOPE:

Yes, that’s true, and that’s highly valuable. Most of the materials being used are local. However, there are some basic materials that are absolutely critical and they can be developed within Nigeria. It’s just it will take a while. We can develop blocks, wooden blocks. It’ll take a process. So we’re putting in a stopgap measure to equip classrooms quickly that have changed from rote- to play-based learning, equip them quickly with some basic, standard, quality, play resources [such as] blocks, puzzles.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, makes sense. Very cool. And so you’ve been doing this for how long now, Patricia?

FALOPE:

I’ve been doing this… this is my sixth year.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Awesome. And based on your experience, what advice, tips or strategies would you give to others in early-childhood education who are passionate about supporting early-childhood education internationally, in particular in countries or areas where they may not have gotten to the point where they’ve adopted some of the more call it progressive methods for early-childhood education, including play-based learning?

FALOPE:

I think the primary thing – the most important lesson for me – has been putting and opening myself, being open to recognize the knowledge that’s available in communities. So going into communities not with a sense of having all the answers and coming to teach, but going in as a learner so that any curriculum that is developed has to go through an iterative process. It’s learning for the person coming in. And I think that that will be the biggest lesson.

SPREEUWENBERG:

And it’s such a powerful one because it also aligns with what we preach in early-childhood education, right, that we as early-childhood educators should be learning all the time as well. And so you really are applying that at just another level when we’re working with programs internationally. So I really like that message: go in as a learner and take an iterative approach because we don’t have all the answers and we can learn a lot from our local community and partners, as well. And certainly you’ve had the experiences that prove that that is in fact very true.

Loved having you on the show, Patricia. If I’m listening to this podcast and I want to get more information about your work and what you do, where can I go to find that information?

FALOPE:

Our website is www.ECDInitiative.org. That’s Early Childhood Development Initiative, www.ECDInitiative.org. And lots of information is there.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Awesome. Patricia, the work you’re doing is phenomenal. I love how you’re finding that right combination of bringing lessons that we’ve learned over here in Canada internationally and merging that with the great cultural knowledge and benefits that our local community brings.

It’s been great having you on the Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.

FALOPE:

Thank you, Ron.

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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