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Early education is child's play: study

The youngest Samoan students need more play and physical education in the classroom, a new piece of local research into early childhood education has found. 

Researcher Suzie Schuster, a senior lecturer at the National University of Samoa Faculty of Education, and her colleague, Kuinileti Lauina-Viliamu, have published a study into early childhood education in Samoa.

They found that as formal physical education and health curriculums are relatively new to the Samoan school system, early childhood teachers are not familiar with play-based experiential learning, and so struggle to use it in their own teaching.

That teachers themselves are likely to have come up through a school system without such classes making their introduction all the more difficult. 

Not only that but parental expectations of what should happen in a preschool do not match teacher’s understandings of the three-to-five year olds' learning needs.

“There is still an expectation that if you send your child to a ‘school’, regardless of the level, there should be performance and learning outcomes based on merit, as opposed to just experiential learning,” Ms. Schuster said.

It is a phenomenon that happens across societies and would be worth investigating further in Samoa, she added. 

Ms. Schuster and Ms. Lauina-Viliamu’s research is the only Pacific Island paper published in a global look at play in early childhood education compiled by a United Nations and European Union project. 

The book, "Physical Education in Early Childhood Education and Care: Researches – Best Practices– Situation" includes authors from 120 authors from 32 countries. Other Oceania countries included are Australia and New Zealand.

“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to contribute to this book because I think it’s really important to lift the profile of Samoa,” said Ms. Schuster, who wrote the paper while in China coaching Samoa’s Pacific Games swimming team hopefuls in high performance training. 

“I think any published peer reviewed piece that has gone through the rigours of publication can be deemed a success and hopefully a contribution to the overall mission of education in Samoa.”

The paper draws on global and regional research to support the Samoan experience, and to highlight further areas that could be researched. 

“[Play] is a lot of self-discovery and it is student centred,” Ms. Schuster said.

“If a teacher does not have experience doing that they will definitely be in the classroom teaching at the front of the class.”

As a teacher of physical education studies to student teachers at N.U.S, Ms. Schuster said the often encounters students who cannot immediately design ‘play-based’ teaching experienced for their very young students.

She believes that stems from them not having had those experiences themselves, either at an E.C.E level or at primary and secondary.

Early childhood educators can learn how to teach in this way, however, the researchers argue. The N.U.S Faculty of Education has begun a Bachelor’s program to improve the quality of teachers going into the field and give them the tools preschoolers are understood to require for successful learning.

“[Early childhood educators] are nurses, occupational therapists, speech therapists, counsellors,” Ms. Schuster said.

“They are basically multiple roles all rolled into one and they need to be able to build their knowledge and skill base to be able to perform these duties at a quality level.”

Understanding that students arriving to the Bachelor programme come without their own experiences of the way they will be expected to teach is important, she said.

“As the first cohort have enrolled in the Bachelor of Education (E.C.E.), it would be recommended to further explore and research the issues of the interpretation of play, personal educational belief systems, the value and the social acceptance of Health and Physical Education during the tenure of these preservice teachers,” the paper concludes.

“Play, games and physical education vary among cultures which need to be acknowledged, identified and ultimately incorporated into the curriculum.”

Ms. Schuster added: "It has to be asked whether that should change or not..

“An honest researcher must ask if there is a place for physical education in Samoa.

“The overall acceptance of physical education has not been widely accepted in Samoa… there are few teachers qualified in the subject of health and physical education as it is not regarded as an important subject.  

“[The] priority [given to] sciences, mathematics and English remain competitive subjects in Samoa as those are defined as the major and compulsory subjects within the Government curriculum.”

Ms. Schuster has been an educational practitioner in physical education, coaching and teacher education in Samoa for 27 years. 

This paper is the first comprehensive overview of the early childhood education and play landscape in the country, she believes. 



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