Researchers and practitioners agree that play is an important tool for children's learning and development. Play impacts large muscle and fine motor skills development in children, affects language acquisition and literacy, along with reducing stress. Learning through play could help children gain skills like creativity, improve self-esteem, teach children how to work in teams, interact socially, and problem solve. Some interventions to increase play-based interaction between parents and children early in life have shown to have an effect on IQ, educational attainment, employment and earnings later in life.
At the same time there is no universal definition of play. Early Childhood Australia, an Australia-based early childhood advocacy organization, says play includes aspects of challenge, fear and problem solving but is always accompanied with exploration and enjoyment. It can encompass everything from pretend-play to physical action-oriented play to self-motivated play. CEI has profiled more than 60 programs around the world that use innovative approaches to make learning fun.
Even though there is a growing acceptance of the importance of play in learning, practitioners believe that more advocacy would be helpful to spread the word. For instance the Devio Arts Centre, an after-school arts and music program in Ghana, finds that one of the greatest barriers to getting support and patronage is that people have limited knowledge about learning through play. The organization is trying to change that in Ghana, where they run a growing program to integrate play and learning for children between the ages of 3 and 18 years. They train teachers in schools, and run a community-based center in a fishing community, for students to practice arts, frequently using technology and play. For instance, children learn how to use software’s like scratch for design, exploration and experimentation.
The Literacy Education and Math Lab (LEMA) is a program run by Literacy4All that innovatively uses board games they’ve designed to make learning fun, effective and easy to replicate. The organization is based in Colombia and trains teachers, community youth, mothers or other community members to become “learning coaches." These coaches use a learning through play methodology devised by Literacy4All to help children explore reading, writing and math. Each “learning coach” divides the class into groups of four children, and each group then works independently to complete a set of tasks on a board game. The games used are like puzzles that offer a sequence of activities to develop literacy and mathematical thinking skills. Learning Coaches help children learn skills like communication, peer to peer learning, collaboration, problem solving and teamwork.
The “learning through play” approach is also used to impart knowledge on good hygiene practices. WASH United, a program recently profiled by CEI, develops interactive games and play-based curricula to take the issues of toilet use, menstrual hygiene and hand-washing out of the class-room, and enable children to generate insights through play-based experiences with friends. To make these issues more attractive to children, the organization even uses incentives like rewards, such as membership cards featuring a celebrity ambassador. WASH United tries to make their approach accessible to as many organizations as possible by sharing play-based tools with partners. They have developed a distribution model which offers standard tools for free, and tailor-made solutions, for a fee, to partners on the field.
Similarly, another program that focuses on making learning through play accessible to all communities, schools and homes worldwide is the Global Cardboard Challenge. Throughout the year, the Imagination Foundation, the implementer of the program, communicates to worldwide communities the importance of creative play, and promotes the idea that any child can build the world they imagine by starting small. In September, communities around the world organize events in which children build anything they can using cardboard and recycled material. This innovation is flexible and costs the participant and the organizer little money as the focus is on using recycled material. The host can be a teacher, school, parent or community volunteers, and they decide when, where and how the challenge will be organized. These events culminate in a “day of play”, when children and adults come together to celebrate and share their creations.
Preparing young children for future success is an incredibly serious issue, but these 4 innovative programs show that when when it comes to learning through play, there's nothing wrong with having a little fun.
Shreya Shah is an Early Childhood Development intern at R4D, a masters student at Georgetown University's Global Human Development program, and has written for The Wall Street Journal in the past.
Photo Credit: Literacy 4 All