Learning by Playing - a powerful approach to help children deal with the uncertain times of COVID-19

UNICEF is working with teachers to introduce play as an effective and fun way of learning, which will also help children to overcome the negative impacts of COVID-19.

By Pamela Mudakikwa
Ntwari Olivier
08 September 2021

Olivier is a 10-year-old boy who loves football with a passion.

He has won several trophies for his school football team where is an avid right midfielder. Oliver’s favourite team is Rayon Sports- a national Rwandan football club- and he dreams of visiting Arsenal FC in London.

School, football, and friends formed the happiest part of this grade 3 student’s life.

Then, COVID-19 struck.

In March 2020, Oliver’s mother told him about a deadly disease that was spreading like a wildfire. Oliver could no longer go to school because the safest place to avoid this contagious disease was at home.

"At first, I was happy about staying home with my family. But gradually, I started to miss school every day. I was not happy about not being able to see my teachers and play with my friends. I missed my football team so much!"

Ntwari Olivier, P3 student at GS Busanza

Staying home for eight consecutive months was exceptionally hard as his life changed from in-person learning and playing with friends to the lonely regimen of learning at home. 

It was a new and isolated landscape.

‘Before, during normal holidays, I could play with my neighbours and my cousins when I visited them at their homes, but when the schools closed because of COVID-19, we were not allowed to go and visit families and friends. I had no one to play with as all my friends had to stay home too. It was difficult for me.’ said Olivier as he wistfully recalled the long days before he returned to school.

COVID-19 upset childrens’ lives with school closures, interruptions to learning, and other preventative measures to curb the spread of the virus.  Fortunately for Olivier and other children in Rwanda, schools did re-open, partially in November 2020 and then fully in February 2021.

With some amendments to the school calendar and investments in remedial education, the 2020-2021 school year ended successfully with approximately 450,000 students completing their national exams in July. 

Lessons on Education Recovery

What was the impact of the pandemic on children’s well-being after such a challenging and disordered year?

Studies found that the repercussions went way beyond learning loss, causing a much deeper impact on their psychological and emotional health.

A Global Report ‘WHAT’S NEXT? Lessons on Education Recovery’, launched recently by UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)- highlighted the fact that it may be easier for school systems to recover from academic setbacks than repair the harm caused to the emotional well-being of students. It noted that, “to minimize the impact of school closures on students’ well-being, middle-and high-income countries are providing psychosocial and mental health supports for learners. This type of support is much less frequently reported by low-income countries, however.

Mama Mukaruriza GS Busanza teacher
UNICEF is working with teachers like Mrs. Mukaruriza - affectionately referred to by her students and peers as 'Mama Mukaruriza' - to introduce play as an effective and fun way of learning

Role of the Family

Nyirahabimana Marie Louise a clinical psychologist and therapist at HVP Gatagara School, explained the changes that may occur in a child’s life when they are faced with disconnection from the outside world: 

Nyirahabimana Marie Louise

"Some children are more open at school than at home mostly because of their surroundings. With the schools’ closure and lockdowns, children could not play with other students as usual. Some of them developed loneliness and eventually depression. Some others developed frustration towards new instructions."

Nyirahabimana Marie Louise, a clinical psychologist and therapist at HVP Gatagara School

She emphasized the importance of parents actively engaging and playing with children.

Of course, this approach is not always easy, and as Mrs. Mukaruriza, the Head of the Parents’ Association at G.S Busanza, and a mother of two herself, says, “We had to combine our jobs, home chores alongside supporting our children who were struggling to cope with the new lifestyle. I learned their games such as football and rope skipping to be able to play with them since they could not play with their friends anymore.” 

It would seem the hard work was worth it, as she confirms that playing with her kids has helped them overcome the feeling of loneliness and kept them active during the long lockdown months.

Play Therapy at School

Schools and teaching staff can also use play therapy as an effective tool by embracing ‘playful’ teaching and classes to help support learning and skills development, as well as children’s overall well-being.

UNICEF is one of several organisations in Rwanda working in partnership with the LEGO Foundation in support of the Ministry of Education, to improve the quality of education and the introduction of play-based learning in schools.

The approach has found its way into the primary school timetable, which makes specific mention of literacy and numeracy play-based learning activities. This is not just a ‘feel good’ approach, but a method backed by empirical research which has demonstrated the benefits of play in actively engaging learners, improving concentration and attention, and providing meaningful engagement during learning.

In the long term, such informal interactions with parents, teachers and peers can also help children develop their social-emotional skills, manage their feelings,  relationships with others, all providing a robust foundation for future emotional health and lifelong skills development.

Some of the children had lost the learning rhythm, so, we included playful activities in lessons to help them catch up faster. For instance, we use role play to help them follow mathematics and languages. Though we no longer have group activities and games outside of the class due to the COVID-19 preventive measures, we can rely on playful learning to keep the children motivated and focused.

Sinayobye Thomas, Mathematics Teacher at Groupe Scolaire Busanza
Sinayobye Thomas

Role of UNICEF

Linked to the national curriculum and its objectives, organisations such as UNICEF are supporting the development of guides and learning materials which can be used to train teachers like Sinayobye to effectively introduce playful activities into their daily lessons.

The needs of adolescents with mental health challenges is also being addressed through a partnership with the Ministry of Health. UNICEF is supporting the government to scope, design and develop mental health and psycho-social guidelines, which will help build the capacity of care workers, and to promote awareness of mental health issues and referral to appropriate services at the community level.

End Game

Children like Oliver have shown remarkable resilience despite the setbacks they have faced due to the pandemic, but they also remain extremely vulnerable.

Schools and parents can play a major role by engaging them in play and play-based learning as a joyful, engaging, and problem-solving approach to learning within the primary school competence-based curriculum. 

For it is not only the loss of learning, but childrens’ psychological and emotional well-being that is the untold and unquantifiable casualty here; and this is where play based learning can really make a difference: both therapeutically as well as for longer term capacity building.