To put an educational spin on the old tree-falling-in-the-forest adage: if a kindergarten student doesn’t realize they are learning by playing, are they are actually learning?
If you ask Shelley Smith, kindergarten teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Warman, the answer would be a resounding “Yes!”
Throughout her 21-year teaching career, Shelley has brought hands-on, play-based learning to her early years classrooms. That approach is now being recognized with a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence Certificate of Achievement—one of only two 2021 Prime Minister’s Awards in Saskatchewan.
When walking into her classroom, you may find Shelley down on her hands and knees working with students at their level—she’s interested in what they’re doing and discovering. “I’ve always wanted to work with young children,” Shelley said. “I find that they’re most excited about learning. Whether you say you’re reading a story or whether you’re going outside, their enthusiasm for learning and their eagerness is endless.”
Shelley explained that play-based learning is based on developmental stages of children. “It becomes more of a reality to them. Paper and pencil are good, but it’s sometimes hard for them to understand that they’re learning because they’re trying so hard to write what they know instead of show what they know. So with hands-on learning, they can show what they’re learning as it’s happening.”
Discovery learning isn’t limited to certain subject areas. Shelley explained that it’s an important part of learning in language arts, math and when learning about our faith. “The faith based (learning) is here every day, not only through prayers but in our actions and our service projects in our schools that we do. That faith comes through whether you’re doing Tipi Teaching or the Seven Sacred teachings intertwined with our Catholic faith. It’s important that children can show their faith in action and not just hear about their faith.”
Quick to share credit for the honour of the award, Shelley stated, “It has been a surprise and delight that people have given me a certificate of achievement for what so many people do daily in our school division. I’m just a reflection of the people I work with and the students and the families that send their children here every day. It’s a co-operative effort, and everybody in the building and in the division works together to support each other.”
While that is true, others are not as apprehensive to credit Shelley for her work. A parent said, “Our child comes home every day telling us how much fun it is to be in Ms. Smith’s classroom. Her play-based learning approach is amazing. She has given them a love of learning. It is fantastic to see them grow into such kind and confident learners.”
Renee Cratty, principal at Holy Trinity, said, “Shelley is an expert teacher who is a dedicated and compassionate professional. She embraces the principles of early childhood education and creates a vibrant environment where learning takes place through inquiry, play and exploration. She creates a faith filled environment where students are taught to know God, to love God, and to serve God. We are blessed to have Shelley as a teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic School.”
When asked about being in Mrs. Smith’s class, Emily, a kindergarten student, said, “She’s the best.” What more of an endorsement does one need?
Shelley’s biography for the award can be found on the Government of Canada’s website.