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Play, Inquiry and Holistic Education in Saigon

An activity using dry Spaghetti noodles and marshmallows might not immediately seem like a learning opportunity, but a closer look reveals the importance of play in education. 

When young students are given these simple food items and told to create a tower, something magical happens. The children exhibit critical thinking, teamwork, resilience, self-management and theory-formulation. These characteristics represent the foundations of integrated learning that produces passionate, question-seeking, community-minded adults: the goal of holistic learning implemented at top international schools such as European International School (EIS) Ho Chi Minh City .

The Power of Play

Productive play exists everywhere at EIS. “A rock, a stick, a stone…even a pencil” can be a source of play when part of carefully-prepared and planned activities, according to Primary Years Program Coordinator and Primary-Team Leader, Michael Perry. Older students often utilize more complex technologies, including coding software. 

“We learn more when we have fun,” explains Jo Roberts, Head of Early Years and Primary. Unlike the rote memorization emphasized in previous decades, when students are enjoying classroom activities, they become more excited about the material and are motivated to take control of their own learning.

Play isn’t restricted to the classrooms or playgrounds at EIS, either. Whether it’s the charades club that imparts a wonder for the arts, the math game club, robotics team or traditional sports, having fun is a critical way for students to develop an inquisitive mindset, often without even knowing they are doing anything other than having a good time.

 

How Play and Inquiry Instill a Service Mindset

“It’s about developing every part of the child, it’s not just about knowledge retention, memorization…it’s your mind, your body, your spirit,” Michael notes. 

As opposed to more traditional education models that stress singular right answers and regurgitation of what one has been told, EIS’s curriculum aims to produce students that “make their own understanding,” as Michael puts it. This means not being told what or how to think, but being given the tools, activities, explanations and environments that provoke them to ask their own questions and develop their own curiosities. Having fun, as encouraged by play, goes an especially long way in this latter quality. 

The effects of instilling such an inquiry-based mindset are numerous. Last year, a group of Grade 4 students learning about climate change started to think about ways they could make a noticeable difference. Inquiry into the environmental impact of meat production led them to successfully lobby the school to enact “Meatless Mondays” in the campus canteen. The school’s emphasis on inquiry allowed them to recognize the problem, while play helped give them the necessary confidence and teamwork to make a solution a reality.

Hardly a one-time occurrence, the same year, a group of Grade 2 students studying habitats recognized the impact that constructing a new building on campus would have on an existing pond, and thus undertook a relocation campaign. They wrote letters, organized a meeting, proposed a solution and even raised funds. It’s difficult to imagine they would have accomplished this if they had been sitting in classes all day memorizing math formulas, names and dates.

The impacts the students realize they can have extends well beyond the EIS campus, however. Inquiry helps students “see lives very different from their own,” Michael explains. This leads to a desire to notice communities and conditions other than their own. During the Week without Walls, for example, a group of students took part in a beach cleaning initiative. 

 

Creating a Family Atmosphere

It’s natural that some parents would be concerned if their child came home from school, and when asked what they did all day, answered: “played.” EIS, therefore, makes concerted efforts to explain their educational philosophy to families. In the fall they held a workshop that involved parents being locked in an escape room. It wasn’t long before the parents saw how the game required teamwork, problem-solving, trial-and-error and determination: all life-skills they hope their children develop. The education model has tangible effects as well, as the school boasts impressive IB scores and university destinations for its graduates

EIS was able to adapt to the recent school closing thanks to their holistic approach. The inquiry-based curriculum already allows students to be active leaders in their own educational journeys, which makes remote classes easier, and the resilience and flexibility fostered by play have come in handy. Surely these are qualities that will continue to benefit them for the rest of their lives. 

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