JET Education Services is on a mission to find evidence-based solutions to critical educational challenges. They recently conducted research using ELOM data on the development of executive functioning, which is one of the most significant and earliest predictors of future academic success.
We chatted to JET’s ECD Specialist Researcher, Rachel Neville, to discover what they’ve learned and how it can be applied in the early learning sector to give young children a better start in formal schooling.
The significance of executive functioning
Executive functions are one of the earliest predictors of mathematics and literacy skills. Executive functioning encompasses three predominant yet distinct cognitive processes:
- Inhibitory control;
- Cognitive flexibility, and
- Working memory.
To investigate which elements of play-based learning are most strongly associated with the development of Cognition and Executive Functioning (one of the 5 developmental domains measured by the ELOM 4&5 Years Child Assessment tool), JET mined the 2021 Thrive by Five Index. The Index is the largest survey of preschool child outcomes in South Africa.
This dataset encompasses 2,564 children attending 529 ECD centres, across all nine provinces of South Africa. It includes various socio-economic contexts and language groups.
The learning environment
Applying inferential statistics to classroom observation and learner outcome data revealed significant associations between Cognition and Executive Functioning and the learning environment, particularly:
- Access to resources supporting open-ended play, such as building blocks;
- Availability of developmentally appropriate materials; and
- Access to a variety of gross motor play equipment.
The classroom layout and the availability or variety of indoor resources weren’t significantly associated with Cognitive and Executive Functions.
“It was no surprise that access to open-ended materials is significant. They offer children the opportunity to explore, problem solve and be creative, enabling them to refine and develop their executive functioning skills.
“It was also unsurprising that gross motor play equipment was significantly associated with performance on the Cognition and Executive Functioning domain. This supports existing research on the impact of physical exercise on the development of executive functions.”
Existing research highlights the role of playful experiences in developing the prefrontal cortex, crucial for Cognition and Executive Functioning. Significantly, JET’s data analysis indicated that the most impactful playful experiences were those facilitated by teachers through a play-based pedagogy, encouraging exploration and agency in learning.
“We discovered a significant positive association with teaching strategies aligned to play-based pedagogy, such as the teacher giving children free choice and making use of questions to extend learning.”
From insight to action
As a research-led organisation, JET has a solid track record of using data to drive change. “Our goal is always to use what we learn – at a programme level and further afield.”
JET is currently working with their ECD implementing partners to apply the insights of this study in order to further develop monitoring and evaluation tools and strengthen the coaching and training of ECD practitioners on play-based pedagogies.
“Traditionally, practitioner training tends to focus on classroom setup and the implementation of a structured programme supported by a variety of resources. As a result of the study, which highlighted teaching strategies and the type of resources above these traditional focus areas, we are now advocating for more time to be spent training on play-based pedagogy.
“It goes beyond simply giving children access to resources and opportunities to play. Learning through play is most effective when children are encouraged to problem solve, think critically, show agency, explore, investigate and communicate their thoughts and ideas.”
JET also believes in sharing their insights with a wider audience. Their paper, ‘The role of play in the development of executive functions in 3 – 5 year olds in South Africa’, has already been presented at the international UKFIET Conference 2023 in Oxford (UK) and at the SARAECE conference in Cape Town.
Rachel hopes that the knowledge acquired drives greater change; “Executive functions develop rapidly between the ages of 3 to 5 years, presenting a window of opportunity to develop a way of thinking and learning that supports academic success well into a child’s schooling career and beyond.”
Photo courtesy of Jet Education Services