We are all wired to play. From the moment we are born, play brings us joy and comfort, builds relationships and opens the door to learning. But importantly, during the first 1,000 days of life, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s. And it’s clear when you see it – watching a young child play and learn is like watching a light turn on. Fortunately, that light will continue to burn bright if supported - as the groundbreaking play-based 1973 ‘Jamaica Study’ found and many studies thereafter, quality early childhood intervention can even increase earnings as an adult by 25 per cent!
Play is one of the ways we learn how to understand our world and our sense of self. Play builds essential and transferable life skills – physical, social, cognitive and emotional – at all ages. Play in a stimulating and supportive environment provides opportunities to learn how to plan, strategise, engage and observe how people react and how objects work. It also creates a sense of motivation and well-being based on positive experiences. As we all move forward adjusting to the impact of COVID-19, the need for positive experiences and coping mechanisms that can counterbalance the negative physical and mental impacts of the pandemic has never been more urgent.
Most parents rarely question the role of play in their infant’s and toddler’s learning. But as they age, this changes, with many considering sitting and completing workbooks or reading from textbooks to be the gold standard of activities that lead to learning. Yet, science has shown that all kids need time, space and freedom to explore the ideas that interest them. In a wide range of formats, when children and youth play, they learn. Opportunities to play – especially through activities that are designed with specific learning goals in mind, and are fun and engaging – put children on a path to success at school.
Unfortunately, far too many classrooms and education systems are not “fun” – that is they don’t incorporate joy and play into children’s learning experiences. This results in unrealized potential to accelerate learning and tends to limit the development of key transferable skills often in great demand by employers: the ability to work well with others, creativity and problem-solving. When children, whether they are 4, or 14 years old, play together, not only do they tend to focus for long periods, but they learn to get along with one another, cooperate, communicate effectively, and resolve conflicts.
Play isn’t another thing to do or an add-on to an already busy day. It’s an approach, a different way to engage all students, and should be offered in a way that is accessible to everyone. More time playing means more time engaging your imagination, actively exploring options and making choices while developing the resilience, independence, confidence and coping mechanisms needed to thrive in a constantly changing world. Play can also be a form of much-needed psycho-social support, helping to relieve stress and anxiety and mitigating the effects of violence and other traumatic experiences.
Simply put, facilitating play is essentially a low-cost, high-return, scalable intervention that positively impacts children’s well-being and learning.
For example, in Jamaica, Play Day JA is celebrated every first Wednesday of February on Global Schools Play Day. The UNICEF office shares play tips with schools and information on the critical role of play in child and youth development with parents and community members encouraging teachers and others to access resources on play and inviting partners to join in school visits to participate in play-based activities. Play is also a significant component of Parent Text, an interactive parenting digital innovation partnership in the UK, between the country’s National Parenting Support Commission (NPSC) and Oxford University, which shares specific age-appropriate messages and parent-child activities. Game based curricula, including the Sports for Development (S4D) focused EduSport, have been developed and mainstreamed into the education system in Jamaica. A community-based intervention called Street Play also promoted an innovative approach that included designating areas and streets on specific days for specific times. The Play sessions were facilitated by teenage coordinators and parents also joined in with many also participating in short parenting information sessions.
In Mexico, Bebebus, is a mobile ECD family intervention that models why and how to play. In Paraguay, a national toys for life campaign tied cultural games into simple ways to encourage play-based activities in everyday life. In Slovakia where thousands of migrants from the Ukraine are in need of support, UNICEF and UNHCR’s play-based blue dot locations offer a release and a respite providing games for children of all ages and critical information for families.
Working in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders, we can begin to harness the power of play and improve the lives of all children with 3 simple steps that extend across the life cycle and link home, school and community:
- exploring the vast resources on parenting and play, including from UNICEF and key partners such as the Lego Foundation and include them in ongoing and new education programmes.
- identifying and amplifying best practices harnessing the power of play through increased school-community based partnerships.
- advocating and budgeting for increased incorporation of play across education systems worldwide through (i) review of curricula to ensure the inclusion of play-based approaches to teaching and learning, (ii) an analysis of play spaces in countries and opportunities to partner to create additional ones, (iii) the prioritization of play spaces and materials in school and community designs making schools and cities fit for kids (iv) emphasis on inclusive, play-based learning (includes S4D approaches) in pre- and in-service training and other professional development initiatives and (v) ensure that the impact of play is assessed in education in emergency response.
Join in the play movement and make time to play at school, at home and in your communities.
Rebecca Tortello is an Education Specialist at UNICEF, Jamaica.
Robert Jenkins is the Global Director of Education and Adolescent Development at UNICEF.