Playing is not (only) for fun

Playing can speed up recovery after child malnutrition

Jol Chuol, Latifa Dusuman, Joseph Duduka
A boy with a toy mad out of a juice box
UNICEFSouthSudan/SCI/Chuol
07 August 2020

Abyiei, South Sudan: “My son grew so attached to the toys that he would wake up at night crying and asking for them,” Adut Mawien Bar (32) says chuckling.

A boy playing with his clay toys
UNICEFSouthSudan/SCI/Chuol
Deng is playing with his new clay toys

A few months back, the 26-month old boy was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition. The lack of nutrients is not only taking its toll on the tiny body but also the brain. Most of the brain development is happening during the first 1000 days of a child’s life, starting inside mommy’s tummy. Once born, the next two years are crucial. If the child is malnourished for longer periods of time within this timeframe, the cognitive development can halt causing unrepairable damages to the brain.

Deng is playing with his new toy animals made out of clay found next door. Toy’s don’t have to be expensive or fancy, your imagination is the only boundary. But what have toys and play to do with brains? Keep reading, and you will find out.

As adults, we might think of children’s play as a way of passing time or keeping them occupied while we are trying to attend to the chores. Adut admit she has more time now that Deng is busy playing. “Am much better than before in terms of the time to perform my domestic chores as my child is usually enjoying the toys.” However, this is just a bonus.

The true value of playing is giving the brain some exercise. The same way a child needs to practice walking to learn how to get the balance right and not fall down every two seconds, the child needs to use its brain for it to develop. Crawling on all four making the sound of an engine while pushing a car forward might seem simple, but it is actually quite complex and triggers movement is several parts of the brain. If you start thinking of playing as brain exercise, you will immediately understand the importance.

If you break a leg and the leg stays inactive while the bone heals, the muscles in the leg will reduce its power and will need some to recover. The same is happening to the children’s brain when they are malnourished, and for speeding up recovery it needs stimulation. Therefore, UNICEF and partners have included toys and playing as an integrated part of the nutrition programming. We educate mothers on the link between malnutrition and brain development, equip nutrition centers with age appropriate toys and train staff on how to integrate play in the treatment of the child.

Deng was given plastic cars, a doll and a wooden animal while he was admitted to Abyei hospital.

children playing outside with homemade toys
UNICEFSouthSudan/SCI/Chuol

“He would play with the toys when we were admitted and always go and find the toys when we went for follow-ups after he was discharged,” Adut explains. “he got so attached that he wanted them in bed at night and when at the health facility he didn’t tolerate anyone child coming close to the toys,” she laughs.

As buying new toys is not sustainable especially for families struggling to make ends meet, volunteers are carrying out house-to-house educative sessions on locally made age appropriate toys for young children who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. The trainings focus on creative and innovative ways of using locally available resources such as tins, water bottles, paper, cartons, sand/soil and wood to create beautiful, long-lasting and sustainable toys.

A truck made from a juice box
UNICEFSouthSudan/SCI/Chuol

Community based volunteer groups are currently practicing production of home-based toys in their homes. They share their experience and knowledge with their neighbours as well as encouraging them to start producing homemade toys locally too.

Adut has been through one of these trainings and in addition to making toys for Deng she is also sharing her knowledge

“My child is heathy and playful to the extent that I have to force him to come for his meals and to sleep. I was also able to teach my children and the neighboring colleagues and friends on how to make simple toys using local materials.”

1.3 million children in South Sudan will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020. UNICEF is working to prevent malnutrition through promotion of breastfeeding, improving knowledge about age-appropriate food and provision of micro- nutrients. When children do get malnourished, UNICEF and partners are providing treatment and guidance on how the children’s bodies and brains can recover- including playing.

UNICEF is thankful for our very supportive nutrition donors, EU/ECHO, UKAid and USAID.
Many thanks to the many national committees for UNICEF also supporting this life-saving programme.