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Harvard and Lego Foundation partners with Nova Pioneer

Nova Pioneer Schools have been directly involved in research on the pedagogy of play project with Project Zero of Harvard Graduate School of Education. They work with teachers from around the world to determine best practice for learning through play. Mardell and his research team visited Nova Pioneer to observe lessons. Nova Pioneer was a part of a group of three schools selected in South Africa chosen.


PRESS RELEASE: Ben Mardell is an optimist. Or as he explains, “Being in schools where children’s natural inclination to create, collaborate and care is supported makes me optimistic.” Ben is Principal Investigator at Project Zero, the oldest research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He investigates how children who learn through play develop social and cognitive skills.

Ben recently spent time at Nova Pioneer, a leading network of schools in South Africa and Kenya.  We got to ask him how the Pedagogy of Play teaches children emotional maturity. Children who learn this way are self-confident and prepared for the future.

Harvard University and the Lego Foundation research learning through play. They work with teachers from around the world to determine best practice for learning through play. Mardell and his research team visited Nova Pioneer to observe lessons. They loved what they saw, saying it was one of their most inspiring days in any school.

Mardell’s research shows that learning through play has many benefits including engaging children to be caring, creative and democratic citizens.  Play reconnects us and restores our sense of community while creating a generation of leaders. 


Developing more adaptive, active learners

At first, learning through play seems to oppose traditional school structures. However, learning through play is not devoid of rules and structure. It does not ignore the disciplines of reading, writing, mathematics and scientific method. Rather, it integrates with traditional schooling and offers the best of both worlds. 

Play is not unique to humans; in fact, we find it in all mammals. Play is part of our DNA, preparing us for unpredictable situations. “We instinctively learn through play. Imagine that one of our ancestors encountered a mammoth. This has never happened to our ancestor before. If he tried to figure it out in that moment, he would have been in serious in trouble. But, because he played hunting games as a child, he is adept at making spontaneous decision,” says Mardell.  In our fast-changing world, our children will certainly encounter a great deal of uncertainty.

Play fuels learning  because players are engaged but not stressed. “ It encourages novel experiences, active engagement, and learning from peers and adults.”


The Reggio Emilia Approach

Nova Pioneer’s curriculum follows the Reggio Emilia approach, a play-based pedagogy. The school also supports the Africa Reggio Emilia Alliance, chaired by Nova Pioneer’s Director of Academics, Des Hugo.

The Reggio Emilia Approach is an innovative approach to early childhood education. It values the child as strong, capable and resilient; rich with wonder and knowledge. Every child has a deep curiosity and potential. Children are curious to understand their world and their place within it. The fundamental principles of Reggio Emilia resonate with Nova Pioneer’s learning approach. And so, the school incorporates play as part of  learning

The Reggio Emilia philosophy underpins Nova Pioneer’s learning model. Hugo explains, “Playful learning, curiosity and exploration are essential for building knowledge.”

“Project Zero’s research perfectly aligns with our work. We offer an African perspective to complement the research done in Europe,” says Hugo. “The pedagogy of play offers rigorous learning opportunities. Students engage in joyful, contextual learning.”


Playful learning at Nova Pioneer a school developing  innovators and leaders

Playful learning, curiosity and exploration are essential for building knowledge.  At the same time, respect, responsibility, and community underpin Nova Pioneer’s curriculum. 

The curriculum incorporates play into daily school activities. A typical day at Nova Pioneer has many opportunities to learn in pairs and groups. The children learn to collaborate and share ideas.  The transition times and classroom routines support fun and play while learning. 

Game- and play-based activities reinforce literacy and numeracy lessons and build core skills.  Exploration days develop deep, inquiry based learning, that is playful and joyful.


Balanced learning

A pedagogy of play helps balance play with traditional school structures. For example, in play, children take risks and try new things. In a school we want our children to be safe from physical and psychological harm. “Both of these things are true,” explains Mardell. “We want children to explore and we don’t want them to get hurt. Realizing that the two aspects are not mutually exclusive was a defining moment in our research. We need to figure out a way for teachers to do both.”

At Nova Pioneer, play is woven into the more traditional Cambridge curriculum. Literacy and numeracy games are often part of the morning meetings. Children get to practice their skills, and teachers get to assess progress.

Teachers introduce the children to literacy and science objectives through real-life scenarios. They learn the importance and use specific academic concepts in small collaborative groups.


It takes a village

Learning does not happen only in the hallowed ground of the schoolyard. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children are always learning. Parents can support teachers in a learning through play approach. “Ask your children questions and share in their wonder,” Mardell says.

Parents must become active participants in their child’s learning. Inquire about the explorations your child is doing at school. Find meaningful ways to support it. If they are learning about animals, plan a trip to the zoo. If they are learning about trees and plants take them out into the garden or a park.

“Ask your children questions; have conversations. Enjoy being curious and exploring with your child. This way, you lead your child by your own example. “A playful learning environment at home supports your children. It makes it more fun to be together and enjoy learning together,” says Mardell.


Adapting to change

There is a lot of hype around emerging technologies. The changes our children will need to adapt to are not in the far-flung reaches of science fiction. Self-driving cars and robots that perform surgeries already exist. It is only a matter of time before they become normal, for good or ill.

Nova Pioneer integrates technology into blended learning with Maths and Literacy. Hugo explains, “We use Mathletics and Reading Eggs programs for these rotations. These are game-based. Exploration Days also incorporate technology. Children learn basic coding, circuitry and even robotics.” 

“Our children are going solve problems using new technology,” says Mardell. “They cannot learn how to do this from a textbook because we do not know exactly what that technology is.  There isn’t a textbook about this.”

Children who learn through play have the confidence to handle uncertainty. We equip them with skills and empathy to work together in groups to solve common problems. 


Children who go to schools like this emerge as democratic citizens. They are adept at communicating, and creative. These children have learnt through doing long-term projects, and group work. They will be well prepared for the challenges they are going to meet in the future. 

The Pedagogy of Play – employed by schools like Nova Pioneer – will have a profoundly positive effect.  It will create a generation of engaged, caring and optimistic leaders. Leaders who are excited to tackle the challenges that may lie ahead.

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