One of my good friends recently finished building her new home. It’s a beautiful home filled with lovely features and fixtures, situated in a prime area. It is exquisite. While I admire the home that she is making, I find the foundations of the home to be particularly interesting. Their function is critical. They’re carefully designed, prepared, inspected, formed, poured, reinforced, inspected again, sealed and then, after all of that, almost totally covered back up with dirt. There is no visible evidence of them to be seen from the side of the road. In the months since the homes completion, I’m sure not one person has arrived and commented on how much they love what they did with the foundations. However, the foundations are what keeps us firmly planted.

The saying it takes a village to raise a child, encapsulates the staff and the work performed at TIGS Prep. Our entire service takes on an active role in the contribution of educating and caring for each child. We all have such diverse roles, talents and interests. We are passionate about the importance of early childhood education and development. Like the foundation for our homes, the early years of a child’s development are a critical time of preparation. We are the foundation builders for our future learners.

Learning foundations are built through play and experience. Children are naturally motivated to play, making play-based programmes a great medium for learning. In this context, children can explore, experiment, discover and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways. It is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain. We know that secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways. Play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life.

The highest form of research is essentially play.

When young children play, it allows them to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks and create meaning. The intellectual and cognitive benefits of playing have been well documented. Children who engage in quality play experiences are more likely to have well-developed memory skills, language development, and are able to regulate their behaviour, leading to enhanced school adjustment and academic learning.

A play-based approach involves both child-initiated and teacher-supported learning. TIGS Prep educators encourage children’s learning and inquiry through interactions that aim to stretch their thinking to higher levels. We use the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) as our curricula when planning play environments, provisions and activities. Each play activity is laying the foundation for future learning. Children singing songs and listening to stories are building critical pre-reading skills that are necessary for them to become readers. Little fingers lining up cars on a mat are building the fine motor skills that will allow them to hold pencils and master keystrokes. At the same time, this play-work is also helping them build concepts of numeracy, such as a one-to-one ratio as they move cars one by one, or the ability to sort by attributes as red cars and blue cars find separate parking lots, or the ability to compare quantities as they realise their friends have more or fewer cars piled up than do they. All of these skills need practice and hands-on construction. This foundation of play and exploration prepares children with the gifts of wonder and social problem-solving. Young children need a solid, deep foundation of hands-on exploration and play to prepare them for later skills.

Play-based early years programmes focus on teaching and learning. In such programmes, this can be in the form of free play (an activity that is spontaneous and directed by the child), and guided play (also child-directed, but the teacher is involved in the activity as a co-player) with intentional teaching. Both have benefits for children’s learning. To capitalise on these benefits, an optimum play-based programme will provide opportunities for both free play and guided play. Involvement in play stimulates a child’s drive for exploration and discovery. This motivates the child to gain mastery over their environment, promoting focus and concentration. It also enables the child to engage in the flexible and higher-level thinking processes deemed essential for the 21st-century learner. These include inquiry processes of imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm, and persistence, problem-solving, analysing, evaluating, applying knowledge and creativity.

The inquiry-based nature of play is supported through the social interactions of teachers and children. TIGS Prep educators take an active role in guiding children’s interactions in the play. Children are supported in developing social skills such as cooperation, sharing and responding to ideas, negotiating, and resolving conflicts. When children are allowed the time and space to build strong foundations, the skills built later come more easily and solidly. Strong foundational learning gives root to later learning as basic concepts create connections necessary for inquiry and growth. We owe children the opportunity to build strong foundations in ways that are developmentally appropriate.