Shelley Knowles l Palladium - Jun 28 2024
Using the Power of Play to Promote Peace in the Southern Philippines

Children in the BARMM playing after school. 

June 11 marked the world's first International Day of Play. When you think about young children playing in the schoolyard or at home in their neighbourhoods, it’s safe to assume their focus is on the here and now and less about excluding other kids or cruelty. But that’s because play is proven to positively impact children by promoting tolerance and resilience, facilitating social inclusion, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrined play as a fundamental right of every child under Article 31.

But for many children around the world, amidst conflict or difficulties, play isn’t an option; it’s a luxury.

In the Bangsamoro region of the Philippines, Abdullah "Junn" P. Salik, Jr. smiles as he recalls fond childhood memories of play while growing up in Upi, Maguindanao. "We played games on the streets during the full moon. We didn't have electricity or computers, so our games were always outside, even at night when it was cold and dark."

As the Director-General for Basic Education, Salik, Jr. recognises the importance of play for children and adults. When his own children were small, he would pretend to be a ghost or a monster and run after them. As they got older, they would team up and strategise how to best avoid him.

Salik, Jr., oversees the Ministry of Basic, Higher and Technical Education (MBHTE)’s programs and projects to strengthen quality teaching and learning in basic education, increase classroom engagement, and prioritise the well-being of the Bangsamoro youth as their communities heal from war.

For nearly five decades, conflict upended the lives of communities in Southern Philippines, claiming the lives of 120,000 people before a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2014 and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was established in 2019.

Despite the peace agreement, existing security issues continue to have a devastating impact on children’s learning. In 2017, hostilities in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur displaced 200,000 children, and around 24,000 learners were not able to report to their schools. Only a handful of students resumed classes.

Pathways to Education

To contribute to peacebuilding, the Australian and the Philippine Governments have been collaborating to provide quality early grades education in the BARMM through the Education Pathways to Peace in Mindanao program. Since 2017, the Program has championed play-based learning and seen impressive results both inside and outside the classroom.

"Play-based learning has been so effective – she can learn while having fun."

Through the Program, teacher Klyssa Mascardo participated in a five-day training and professional development workshop to learn about play-based learning and teaching methodologies that would allow her to better support her students' strengths and weaknesses.

Shortly after returning to the Inclusive and Supportive Centre of Learning Facility at Timanan Central Elementary School, Mascardo started introducing more play-based learning to her students. The Facility supports children with disabilities, Indigenous learners, and those displaced by conflict. It is supported by the Australian Government in partnership with the Ministry.

"I have a seven-year-old learner with traits that are consistent with autism,” she explains. “She has difficulty with speech and movement. Initially, I gave her worksheets so she could do the same work as her classmates, but as time passed, she wouldn't complete them."

Guided by what she had learned in the Program workshop, Mascardo introduced manipulative toys that help children develop fine motor skills. The girl started to mirror the shapes Mascardo was holding up. By crawling through tubes, she started to gain confidence, and her motor skills improved.

“She can now sit in a chair and hold a pen without assistance. Play-based learning has been so effective – she can learn while having fun,” says Mascardo.

"Some of our students had to leave their homes because of armed conflict. They missed out on opportunities to learn and play."

Just the Beginning

The facility's success is now being replicated in Muslim schools. Through the Pathways Program, Australia and the Ministry are establishing a pilot school and building teachers' capacity after a series of needs assessment sessions. A madrasah in Cotabato City will be an innovative pilot school from which 25 other Muslim schools can learn.

"Muslim education focuses on the moral values of the learners through character education and play-based learning. For a learner to excel, they need strong interpersonal skills, not just to succeed academically,” says Pathways program specialist Alih Bato. “Through play, children’s social and emotional skills improve, and they can better handle their emotions. Playing with neighbours or classmates builds camaraderie and helps to build resilience and understanding.”

“This International Day of Play, we celebrate all children, including children with disabilities and the most marginalised, and their right to play,” says Salik Jr. “Play in school is important because children learn better when having fun. We are grateful to Australia for continuing to support children’s learning and play a key role in the education system in the BARMM.”

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