I refer to Will A Campbell’s letter of February 18 in SN, ‘Lowering age of nursery school entry misguided.’ Mr Campbell points out the crucial importance of play in intellectual and emotional development. Pointing to educational research to back his claim, he suggests that hurrying off young children to nursery school may be a misguided decision on the part of the Ministry of Education. He argues that children should either start formal education no younger than around the age of seven or the school system should be transformed so that their early childhood education is essentially grounded in creative play. I happily endorse Mr Campbell’s plea, but offer a cautionary note to his timely letter:
Timely indeed because most of our nation is poised and anxious for a change in the political status quo; a political status quo that has for nearly three decades supported an economic status quo where getting and spending by any means necessary have been touted as the highest values; three decades of so called development, during which this overused word means getting things that we couldn’t get before. Whatever people’s reasons for wanting or not wanting a political change, here comes a letter writer suggesting that we must consider that making more time for our infants to behold the lilies of the field which neither toil nor spin is of higher value than formalized classroom instruction. Or that is where I would like to take my interpretation of Mr Campbell’s letter, in consideration of the larger implications of nursery and primary education for our social ethos.
If our Ministry of Education were to convince the population by real action that they espoused a philosophy that held creative play to be the foundation of intellectual and emotional development, we might indeed create a cadre of educational leaders that recognizes human development as something more than drilling our children to fit into the consumerist society that has so rapidly risen up around us in these last three or so decades. I believe Mr Campbell would support my argument for a conception of play that liberates the imagination from the social identities that reproduce the socio-economic pecking order with all its inherent inequities and cruelties—a conception of play that nurtures the inherent needs of the family, the village, the community for cohesiveness and communication, rather than the kind of socialization currently happening in many classrooms where children engage in role-play that mimics the social order, or when parents or caregivers pander to children’s rage to possess things ranging from dolls to guns and all the technological gadgets in between.
This so-called play can be destructive, producing children who are unable to communicate their emotional needs and who are even cruel to each other in their bid to identify with the imbalanced social order and to find a place of power in it as they grow.
Of course, decisions made by the ministry should be made in consultation not only with the experts in child psychology but also with the people’s representatives. And the people’s representatives would need to find a way to engage the many thousands of parents and caregivers who hurry their children off to nursery in the mornings. We would have to find out whether these children are in school because their parents cannot afford to stay home and be their first playmates, or because they think that other people are more equipped for this task although they can afford to stay home, or because the ministry says that they must go and have given the matter little further thought. In other words, the entire nation would need to seriously revisit the notion of play and its inherent value.
I must thank Mr Campbell for his letter and hope that we can encourage discussion in the society on this important matter of what we are raising our children to be.
Lecturer in English and Education