Playful learning - the gist of 21st century education for Europe

EPA kicked off 2018: the Year of Equitable Access to Education with a high-level event organised in partnership with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on the eve of the 1st European Education Summit on 24 January. The event was hosted by Pavel Trantina, President of the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (EESC SOC) and attended by Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, MEP István Újhelyi (S&D) and EESC member Renate Heinisch.

Ever since the Lisbon goals were set in 2000, the European Union has struggled to find a way to become the world's knowledge leader again. Recent debates following the 2015 PISA result and action planned subsequently are about adequate reforms of school systems to offer today's children what they really need for a bright future. The planned Pillar of Social Rights as well as plans for the social dimension of the EMU contain education as a lifelong process and emphasise the importance of learning in early childhood. At the same time preventing early school leaving is one of the EU2020 headline targets, and the recent EC policy messages on tackling the issue emphasise the importance of enjoying, taking ownership of learning - playfulness is a successful tool for. For a happy and healthy childhood, it is necessary to provide for the basic right to play, but at the same time it is not only a basic right for children, but as research shows also essential for a heathy psyche at all ages. Research shows that the two, play and learning are the best combination for the kind of learning necessary in the 21st century, at a time when we are educating children for a future of jobs non-existent today. For this reason probably the most important competences to foster are learning and creativity. It is becoming clear that we must educate lifelong learners, and as people usually like doing things they enjoy, playfulness is an important element.

Pavel Trantina highlighted in his introduction that the aim of education should be to offer a promising future in Europe. According to him the event is very timely before the Summit as it is high time to start not to talk about education, even less about teaching, but rather to put learning in our focus. Learning should be supported lifelong and life-wide, in formal, non-formal and informal settings, focusing on supporting the development of soft skills. He linked this and EPA's initiative to national validation strategies due next year. Mr. Trantina also offered his commitment to playful learning related to his background in scouting based on the principle of game with a purpose and being aware of the skills and competences developed by that as an underlying element.

Commissioner Navracsics welcomed the idea of such an event by saying that most discussions on education are about outcomes and it is rarely discussed how they are achieved. He identified playful learning as a way of not only skills development and acquiring knowledge, but also as a foundation of social engagement and thus active citizenship. He highlighted some important elements of play for learning: the opportunity to create, discussion, communication, unrestricted imagination and safely stepping into a fictional world, social and emotional power, free choice, building on internal motivation and a different learner-educator relationship. He highlighted the European Commission's commitment to these learning principles and the need to support formal education to embrace it as well as their responsibility for supporting the creation of suitable social and physical spaces. He also underlined the need to introduce new ways off evaluation to support this. He also highlighted the importance of empowering parents and mutual learning. He finished his contribution by quoting Confucius 'learning without thinking is useless; thinking without learning is dangerous' and added that it is up to us to make sure play is part of this equation.

MEP István Újhelyi, father of 5 children of different ages underlined his commitment to the right to the right education. He expressed his wish that all children will have the opportunity to be educated as it best suits them to maintain their curiosity and wish to learn. He welcomed the EC's initiative to establish a European Education Area highlighting the fact that Europe cannot afford national schools systems that provide a much lower quality education than others. When talking about the timely revision of the key competences framework, he asked the Commissioner to make sure transversal skills will get an equal focus to the digital and entrepreneurial competences emphasised in the new education package. Being the Ambassador of circus he highlighted the importance of joy for mental health.

Eszter Salamon, President of EPA and member of the Playfutures Advisory Group introduced the rights basis of equitable access to education and playful learning, putting the rights to the right education, the right to play and the rights of parents to choose the best education pathways for their children without any restrictions or constraints. She also made the link to Sustainable Development Goal 4, Equitably Quality Education for All, and called for the EU's institutions to follow the lead of UNESCO to rethink education and consider education as a global common good - owned and shaped by everybody for the good of the individual and the whole community. She also introduced the characteristics of playful learning: joyful, actively engaging, meaningful, iterative and socially interactive. She also emphasised that most of them should always be elements of good learning and quoted the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on flow. At the end of her presentation she introduced the Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Reschnik and his team as an inspiring practice

Charlotte Wieder, Manager of Playfutures, an initiative by LEGO Foundation presented some casestudies to inspire participants as well as the structure, activities and goalsof Playfutures. She started her presentation with a hands-on activity inviting everybody to build their LEGO duck and introducing the multitude of learning opportunities of such a simple action. A holistic lifelong learning approach was the heart of her presentation, highlighting the importance of a good start in early years, the need to cater for learner diversity and linked it to the current and future needs of labour markets that are not catered for properly by contemporary traditional formal education. She invited policy makers, stakeholder representatives and practitioners present and represented by those attending the event to join the Playfutures community and be part of shaping the present and future of learning and education.

Two inspiring practices were presented afterwards:

KórházSuli (HospiEdu), a Hungarian start-up initiative that offers playful learning opportunities to hospitalised children, but also children and young people prevented from regularly attending school for other reasons, and

TOY, Together Young and Old, the winner of the Lifelong Learning Award 2016, an intergenerational learning initiative bringing children under 8 and older people together in various settings for fun learning and developing interpersonal relationships.

Renate Heinisch, a long-time advocate of parental engagement and the importance of grandparents greeted the initiative and congratulated on the achievements of all practices presented.

Pavel Trantina also highlighted an inspiring practice known to him, Hopscotch, an Czech-developed application for parents to support them to play with their children in a conscious way to develop skills.

A question from the audience, from a representative of the LEGO Group set us the most important task: how to influence national level given the commitment of Eu institutions. This is what EPA will try to do during the Year of Equitable Access to Education and will keep the readers of this blog informed.

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