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Singing songs. Painting pictures. Building with colourful bricks. These activities that sound like pure fun are the building blocks of lifelong learning.

Unfortunately, for so many people, education is about memorizing facts and figures. And it starts when a child walks into a classroom on the first day of first grade.

Learning begins at birth. During the formative years of life, in early childhood, the brain develops in complexity at an astounding pace as brain cells form new connections at a rate of 700 to 1,000 a second. This early development is supported by caring, loving, safe, nurturing and nourishing environments.

At this phase, play is very much a part of what parents and caregivers do with young children. These interactions support and foster learning. They provide children with the tools to succeed on a lifelong journey of learning. The way we think about early childhood development is changing rapidly with advances in neuroscience.

Certainly, there are different kinds of play. But associative, dramatic and constructive play have been associated with better language, cognitive, social and emotional skills – skills children need to succeed in school. A close examination of children’s early years reveals that play influences childhood development. Through play, children learn to think, interact and create.

Sure, play is still fun. That is one of the reasons it is so powerful as an educational tool. Play builds motivation and engagement in learning. It allows children to be active participants in their education. Play makes learning fun.

Play also has been associated with future financial success. A recent economic analysis of an early childhood intervention in Jamaica found that stunted children exposed to play and stimulation in the first few years of their lives earned 25 percent more 20 years later than stunted children who were not part of the intervention.

Play based learning in Rwanda. © UNICEF/PFPG2014-1241/ Park
Play based learning in Rwanda. © UNICEF/PFPG2014-1241/ Park

Despite this kind of evidence, play and creativity are often undervalued. Traditional understandings of academic achievement keep families and educators from embracing play as a learning tool. Child labour also hinders children’s chance to play. In addition, scarce resources, a lack of capacity in play-based pedagogy and overcrowding in early learning centres also limit children’s opportunity to learn through play.

Data from UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey’s (MICS) indicate that in low- and middle-income countries, a majority of children younger than 5 do not have access to toys. Only 60 per cent of mothers in the surveys reported playing with their children in the past three days.

UNICEF embraces a holistic approach to early childhood development. It begins with Care for Child Development (CCD) for children 0 to 2 years, progresses with early learning and school readiness initiatives, and continues with a focus on child-friendly schools.

It is an approach that recognizes the importance of play in creating high-quality learning environments that prepare children to succeed in school, lead productive lives and contribute to the peace and prosperity of their families and communities.

UNICEF’s emphasis on play makes its new partnership with the LEGO Foundation and the LEGO Group a perfect fit.Together, UNICEF and LEGO will work to develop integrated, innovative solutions that link learning and play, to early childhood development and wellbeing.

More specifically, the partnership includes:

  1. A US$8.2 million grant to UNICEF’s early childhood development and education programmes, beginning in South Africa.
  2. Joint efforts to advocate for a global early childhood learning, education and development agenda that recognizes the importance of play.
  3. Application of UNICEF’s Children’s Rights and Business Principles to strengthen LEGO’s governance on child protection and influence its business practices as they affect children.

The partnership will also provide support for research into the role of play in learning and develop an evidence base that can be used to inform programming and influence global awareness.

With this new partnership in place, UNICEF and LEGO will be on the way to making play the fun way children learn and develop.

Pia Rebello Britto is UNICEF’s Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development

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