Recently, Phare Ponleu Selpak, the Battambang-based non-profit organisation which was founded in 1994, recently conducted a workshop on “Art Integration into Preschool Education Programmes” to share best practices of its early childhood arts-based education programme.

The workshop was attended by the Education Officers of the Battambang Provincial Administration, Officials from the Department of Education, Youth and Sports and teachers from several public schools.

Each year, the Phare kindergarten accepts 170 students aged between 3 and 5 years old from the surrounding community.

The program has been recognised by local government and is well known in the community for its safe and caring learning environment and the quality of its teaching – via an arts-based curriculum – according to Phare Ponleu Selpak.

“Phare’s wider vision is to truly realise the power of arts in providing a holistic, all-rounded education, which is critical to addressing educational inequality,” said Osman Khawaja, executive director at Phare Ponleu Selpak.

“Education through the arts is known to help students from stagnant social mobility backgrounds and marginalised communities close the achievement gap,” he added.

Khawaja said the workshop was part of a long term partnership with the Department of Education. It was one of the first steps in working together to increase S.T.E.A.M implementation in Battambang schools, particularly arts education.

He explained how Phare’s art-based curriculum differed from the art classes on offer at public schools.

Art classes at public schools are what is called “art for art’s sake” or education about the arts. The workshop was about education ‘through’ the arts – also called “arts-based” or “arts-injected” education.

“Using arts to teach general academic subjects assists students in learning more creatively, deepens their understanding and retention of the subject matter,” Khawaja told The Post.

The curriculum focuses on five domains of children development – first physical – which includes the child’s ability to master movement, balance and interaction skills with the world around them.

Second, cognitive – the child’s ability to think, react and learn, including cause and effect, matching, beginning math and reasoning.

Third, kids receive communicative skills – the child’s ability to exchange information, understand and express ideas.

Fourth, Adaptive skills – the child’s ability to adapt to the demands of everyday living.

Last but not least, they are trained in social skills development – the child’s ability to interact with others, self-regulate and organise emotions.

Khawaja says the approach has been shown to enhance student’s ability to recognise and accept multiple perspectives and build connections across different fields of academics.

“Students are more willing to imagine possibilities that are not now but which might become, enabling them to be ready for the fast changing future,” he says, adding that “education through the arts encourages risk taking, strengthens memory, builds resilience and many other skills necessary for 21st century success.”

This development is carried out through integrated arts activities, which give them a strong foundation for success in subsequent years of schooling and make learning a lot of fun.

“Here at Phare Ponleu Selpak, we believe strongly in the power of the arts to change lives. And science is on our side,” said Maria Tate, arts education specialist at Phare Ponleu Selpak.

“Many studies in Asia and around the world have shown the arts have multiple benefits for education; these include better test scores, higher civic engagement, increased capacity in math and language, better emotional and behavioural regulation and increased likelihood of higher education and professional careers,” she added.

In the academic years from 2020-2022, Phare’s kindergarten made significant steps into further incorporating arts into classroom teaching, according to the organisation.

The teachers have been trained in different forms of arts – including drama, music, drawing, basic circus, and dance – by local and international teachers, giving them the confidence and creativity to integrate arts into their lesson plans.

“We take care to ensure Khmer art elements are also used to build an appreciation for the students’ own culture,” says Prang Nhary, education manager at Phare Ponleu Selpak.

The school is fortunate to have some of the finest teachers in Cambodia preserving and passing on traditional Khmer arts such as dance and music, as well as leading instructors in contemporary dance and modern music, according to Khawaja.

In addition, the students have access to the highly qualified visual and applied arts school staff who run a state of the art vocational program on the school’s campus.

“Students at Phare also have the opportunity to learn circus arts, a wonderful and unique art which combines physical and mental skills in a way no other art can,” he added.

The arts integration in the curriculum include teaching a science lesson about the life cycle of plants using Khmer dance hand gestures; learning about gravity using juggling balls; improving gross motor skills using age-appropriate acrobatics and circus games; singing traditional Cambodian children’s songs to learn the proper Sam Peah and so on.

This training was made possible through a grant by Teachers Across Borders, an Australian volunteer-based organisation, which has been supporting capacity building in public schools in Battambang for several years.

Though Khawaja recognised that some private schools use art in their programmes at various levels, the general public schools are not yet adopting a fully arts immersive, child centered program.

“We hope to help other schools implement similar programs in the future, as we know from research all over the world that such programs have shown very high student achievement and growth,” he said.

He added that the arts are essential to a more holistic development of a child in kindergarten, giving them a strong foundation for success in their future education and life.

“Arts injected education assists students in developing their fine and gross motor skills, resilience, creativity, and many other skills necessary for physical, cognitive, emotional, social, language and literacy development,” he said.

Morn Sophorn, an official from the provincial education department, and Thort Rina, a kindergarten teacher at Balart School, said “incorporating art into the curriculum is a great way to help children think flexibly, gain knowledge quickly and learn more about Khmer art and their heritage.”

Inspired by drawing workshops organised at the Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai and Khmer border, 8 evacuee students established Phare Ponleu Selpak, “the brightness of arts” in 1994 on the outskirts of Anchanh village, Battambang.