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November 2019   |   Volume 21 No. 1

Playing the Long Game

The mushroom game with key learning elements, including creativity, self-regulation, getting along with other children and safe movement.
A world where children have forgotten how to play sounds like the plot of a Grimm’s fairytale. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in today’s digital world and it has sparked a major project to teach kids to play – and socialise – again.

The wicked witch in this particularly grim fairytale is the modern world – where parents are too busy to play with their children and where the only interaction occurring during play is between the child and his/her digital device, be it iPhone, iPad, or computer.

This joyless situation has sparked a project, developed by HKU’s Faculty of Education and called Jockey Club ‘Play n Gain’, which aims to put the fun back into being a child by encouraging kindergarten children to learn social skills – and experience enjoyment – by learning to play.

“The move away from playing is not helped by the Hong Kong attitude to learning which is ‘study, study, study’,” said Dr Sylvia Liu, Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Director for Play n Gain. “But this is not just in Hong Kong, it is a global phenomenon – playing is not a factor in many children’s lives, and later in life they have difficulty with social interactions. In the last 10 years, with the advent of smartphone and iPad, the situation has worsened. People sitting at a table together will communicate with each other via WhatsApp rather than talk.”

The official launch of the Play n Gain project in May 2019 marked the culmination of 15 years of work in this area for Dr Liu. Central to the work is her research-based social competence programme ‘Social Star Mirror Model’. This serves as the conceptual framework for improving children’s social and emotional skills through the systematic playing of interactive group games.

She started conducting research on play-based learning for students in Hong Kong when she realised her university students lacked social skills in face-to-face encounters. “Fresh graduates who were joining the workforce didn’t know how to interact. I looked into it and realised how socially isolated their lives had become. Even when given group assignments, they wouldn’t actually work together. Instead they’d assign to each other different parts of the project and accomplish those parts alone.”

Dr Liu wondered when this social ‘famine’ started in a young person’s life, and shifted her attention to secondary school students, then to primary. “I studied children in primary one to six, teaching them how to play. I quickly realised that if they didn’t start playing during primary one to three, it got much harder to learn.”

The Launching Ceremony of the Jockey Club ‘Play n Gain’ project.

Sustainable gains

She then went back even further to kindergarten, and this is where the Play n Gain project is focussed now. “Kindergarten is where there is more involvement across the board. Not only children and teachers, but parents are involved too, which is important as the gains are not only for the kids, they are for everyone – the ultimate aim is sustainability.”

Play n Gain works by supporting participating kindergartens to be ‘Seed Schools’, training parents and teachers to become ambassadors and keep play education going across schools and community.

The project also recruits university students as game assistants. Not only are they future parents but they will help support game activities at schools and in the community. Further, the project works with different organisations to promote game education to the wider community.

Dr Liu said: “We are working together to extend social-emotional learning from kindergartens to the community. Play n Gain develops human resources for game training to achieve sustainability in the long run. Parents and teachers can apply their play skills in daily life and in the community, to create play opportunities, environment and playmates for children. Play is a language – and when play is everywhere, it becomes part of our daily lives. Children play happily, safely with respect, as well as enjoying social-emotional gains.”

Play n Gain has been funded by the Jockey Club Charities Trust. The HKU project began in 2018, with workshops held for teachers and parents in six kindergartens. It has since been extended to cover 14 local kindergartens, with a total of more than 2,200 children, and aims to develop a pool of around 8,000 parents, teachers and significant others to be change agents.

Asked what kinds of games are played, Dr Liu cites ‘Scissors, Paper, Rock’ – which is perfect as it is universal. “You use your hands and once the rules are established it’s easy to play,” said Dr Liu. “We then extend it to using your whole body – hold arms and legs out wide for paper, cross arms and legs for scissors, kneel down in a ball for rock.”

Dr Sylvia Liu (second from left), Project Director of the Jockey Club ‘Play n Gain’ project introducing some ‘good games’, which should be fun, safe and respectful to others when playing.

The magic ball game with key learning elements, including rotation, sharing, courtesy, imagination and creativity.

Good winners, good losers

Next, they play with the rules, changing them so children have to think about what will now win. It gets them involved and engages them, and it helps ensure they learn to be good winners and good losers – no gloating, no sulking – and these skills become applicable in life.

“It’s proven that playing games helps you learn essential social-emotional skills. There are three stages: start, maintenance, friendship; communication, conflict, emotion; and environment and executive functions, which in turn involve working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.”

Asked what is most important to her about Play n Gain, Dr Liu said: “The parents learn to play and apply it to daily life, the teachers learn to play and apply it to daily teaching, the children learn to play and it prepares them for life.”

We are working together to extend social-emotional learning from kindergartens to the community. Play n Gain develops human resources for game training to achieve sustainability in the long run.