YCAR brings unique early childhood education strategies to China

East Asian woman teacher smiling with toddler students

The York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) and its Asian Business and Management Program (ABMP) recently designed and delivered a professional development course for over 270 early childhood education teachers in Jiangsu province, People’s Republic of China.

This leading-edge international collaboration project, called “Kindergarten Learning in Real-Life Contexts Through Play and Inquiry,” formally launched in February 2023 and was delivered throughout the following weeks. In light of the success of the course’s debut series, the team behind the project now aims to deliver more courses in China and beyond, with future dates and course subjects yet to be announced.

“Kindergarten Learning in Real-Life Contexts Through Play and Inquiry” focuses on the role of play- and inquiry-based learning in children’s education, emphasizing the importance – and untapped potential – of an unconventional pedagogical mode. Joanne Marie Babalis, a kindergarten teacher, PhD student in the Faculty of Education and instructor for ABMP courses, whose blog is highly acclaimed in early childhood education circles, led via web conference seven cohorts of participants who gathered together face-to-face for the three-hour sessions.

Thanks to the innovative instruction methodology, program participants are afforded the benefit of receiving feedback in real time from their instructor in Toronto, while engaging in group exercises with their peers in Jiangsu.

The program’s learning objectives were to help participants identify the role of play in facilitating learning; describe the categories of children’s play; develop intentional play-based learning activities; apply the four stages of inquiry, which are identifying problems, making a plan, executing the plan and reflecting on outcomes, to lesson design and delivery; and plan for play to maximize children’s learning.

A group of Jiangsu teachers pose for a photo in front of a projector screen where instructor Babalis appears.
One of the Jiangsu teachers’ cohorts with the program instructor Babalis appearing via video link.

The Ontario’s Early Years Initiative’s adopted pedagogical approach inspired the program’s development, with Ontario’s full-day junior and senior kindergarten program serving as a model for play-based and inquiry-based learning.

According to Babalis, the Chinese teachers were already familiar with play-based learning but were relatively new to the inquiry-based method. The program introduced them to the potential of using inquiry projects – which start with a child’s curiosity and develop through play and creative experiences – followed by research and sharing findings with the class, parents or the school community.

The program curriculum underscored the idea that play provides opportunities for learning in a context wherein children are at their most receptive, one in which play and academic work are inextricably linked, and not distinct categories for them. By facilitating the children in making connections between their lives, their environment, and their teacher’s instruction, proponents of this novel method of teaching strive to more effectively maintain the attention and interest of students within and across classes.

Organizers say feedback from the participants was exceptionally positive, with broad praise for the program’s interactivity, clarity, and the balance of conceptual grounding and practical application.

Elena Caprioni, ABMP program director, said “The Kindergarten Learning in Real-Life Contexts through Play and Inquiry program was a great success in giving the Chinese teachers a thorough understanding of early childhood education principles as practiced in Ontario, and equipping them with knowledge, tools and techniques that they can use to further enhance their students’ learning experiences through play and inquiry. It is a shining example of how education can be used to connect different cultures and promote global understanding.”