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The power of play changes children and communities

© UNICEF Philippines
Former Australia Ambassador to the Philippines H.E. Rod Smith, former UNICEF Representative Vanessa Tobin and UNICEF Early Learning Specialist Fe Nogra-Abog (in the black UNICEF shirt) visit a day care center in Davao

By Ajeet Panemanglor

We talked to UNICEF Philippines Early Childhood Development Specialist Fe Nogra-Abog to ask why play is important in a child’s development.

“Many people think that once young children are fed well and are healthy, they are okay,” says Fe Nogra-Abog, UNICEF specialist for early childhood development (ECD) programs. But “feeding the mind”, she points out, can be just as important.

A crusader for ECD programs, Fe’s work involves informing and influencing families, communities and officials of the importance of implementing programs that address children’s developmental needs. Formerly a university lecturer in mathematics, Fe noted that some students’ fear of the subject stemmed from experiences as a child. “I injected fun in my classes, which made students relax and less anxious about math,” she says. Eventually, she decided to seek out an organization whose mandate involved childhood learning and development on a much larger scale, which lead her to work with UNICEF.

Her work often takes her out of the office, and she finds herself in places as far apart as Cagayan and Sulu, and even Rwanda in Africa, where she went to help assist with government ECD programs there. For her, working in the field can involve long hikes and horseback rides, to reach communities not easily accessible. But sometimes, the work in itself can be a reward. “We had to walk long and ride a horse for more than half an hour,” she relates of a trip to Marilog in Davao, “But lo and behold, the sight that greeted us at the end was like heaven on earth.” On top of a hill, a neighborhood playgroup being supervised by a mother from the village was in the midst of a song. They then moved on to their next activity - finding things of different shapes, colors and textures in their surroundings. “Right then and there, children were learning colors, textures, shapes and simple math while having fun,” Fe relates.

Experts point out that, through play, children learn new vocabulary, grammar, and the ability to sustain conversational exchanges. Chants, clapping games and musical instruments can teach them about music, while playing with blocks and counting can build mathematical skills. Thus, simple activities like that being done in the Marilog playgroup can have far-reaching benefits.

The effect of these programs extends beyond the children and into their community. In Marilog, elders related that the playgroup motivated parents to send their children to formal school, despite its distance from the village. And in the Tondo district of Manila, Fe speaks of a volunteer conducting a similar playgroup who noticed that parents were becoming less “brusque” and taking more care with their language and actions, to be able to provide a positive learning environment for their children.
 

Play also allows children to work through emotional problems, and deal with emotions brought on by terrifying situations and stressful events. This is of special value to children who have endured natural or man-made calamities. “Among children who have been affected by disasters and conflict, play provides opportunities for children to bring back normalcy and structure in their lives and slowly regain control of the situation and self-confidence,” Fe notes. Beyond simply providing a way to pass time for children, or even learning opportunities, play can also provide space for healing and growth.

“Play is child’s work,” she emphasizes, “This is the best way they acquire knowledge and skills necessary for everyday living.” While there may be some time to go before the importance of play is institutionalized, the work that Fe and others like her are doing is ensuring that children all over the country will one day have access to ECD programs, and be able to freely exercise that basic, fundamental right – to play, to learn from playing, and to play freely.

 

 
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