Play is critical for healthy childhood development and is an important part of malnutrition treatment, but many children don't have access to play stimulation. UNICEF will repurpose RUTF cardboard boxes and other packaging as fun and appropriate toys.
Play is critical for healthy childhood development, helping to build cognitive, social and physical skills. It is also an essential part of severe acute malnutrition treatment, with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommending 15-30 minutes of play stimulation per day for recovery. However, many children enrolled in malnutrition treatment do not have access to relevant toys. Many caregivers are also not aware of the importance of play.
Each year, UNICEF delivers thousands of tons of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), a fortified, peanut paste for treating malnutrition in children under five. In 2022, UNICEF placed orders for 120,000 MT of RUTF, equivalent to 8.7 million cardboard boxes dispersed across the globe. There is an opportunity to repurpose these boxes into relevant and fun toys. UNICEF is also working to address climate change through sustainable procurement across all supplies. Our environmental impact has consequences for children, their future and planet they will inherit.
WHO recommends 15-30 minutes of play stimulation per day for acute malnutrition recovery.
In 2022, 8.7 million cardboard boxes circulated the world as part of RUTF packaging.
7.3 million children
UNICEF could reach an estimated 7.3 million children by repurposing RUTF carboard boxes into toys to support malnutrition recovery.
Inspired by a supplier initiative, UNICEF is broadening the concept and will print and pre-cut toys in corrugated cardboard cartons, repurposing boxes into toys to aid in malnutrition recovery and promote learning through play.
UNICEF offers a diverse catalogue of cardboard toys which help develop cognitive, motor and social skills in children aged six months to five years. The toys are inclusive, designed with contrast colours, tactile features, easy grip, ensuring all children with and without disabilities can play with them. How-to-use guides will also be included for caretakers, and UNICEF programming will emphasize positive parenting and nurturing care.
Project Play is already bringing smiles to children in several countries during proof-of-concept testing that started in late 2022. The initiative is currently piloted in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Pakistan, within existing UNICEF-supported health centres offering RUTF treatment for wasting. The learnings will inform a number of project parameters, such as using the supply chain for delivery, platform and modalities as well as accessibility of toys and parent engagement.
Through this frugal innovation UNICEF will provide simple, fun and easy-to-use toys to children with severe acute malnutrition, increasing the likelihood of recovery. Additionally, providing toys and ‘how-to-use’ guides enables to raise awareness of the importance of play.
By repurposing packaging and giving cardboard boxes a second life, UNICEF also minimizes waste, contributing to a more sustainable world for future generations.
If scaled, this project has the potential to reach up to 7.3 million children per year – the number of children who received UNICEF-supported malnutrition treatment and care in 2022. If toy designs are added to the packaging of other supplies, UNICEF could potentially reach tens of millions of children per year.
While it may sound like fun and games, play is a critical part of healthy childhood development
The first five years of life are a critical period of brain growth in every child, with learning taking place at a speed that will never be equalled. Through play children build cognitive and motor skills and learn through experimentation – figuring out how the world works for themselves. It also teaches social skills, including leadership and group skills.
When a child is malnourished, the lack of nutrients affects both their body and their brain, and it can halt critical cognitive development. By providing toys and encouraging play UNICEF can help ensure children’s brains begin to recover. The presence of toys will also help UNICEF raise awareness of the importance of play among caregivers.