Play is not a  four-letter word

Recently, during a popular morning radio show, the presenter asked for one key activity that can be used to “improve mathematical skills” for very young children. I phoned in and got through!

In the one-minute space between my call and the 7AM news bulletin, I tried to explain how play forms the foundation for math and language development; disappointingly, the presenter felt that he still did not get THE answer — that one thing that can be done to kick-start better abilities and skills in mathematics. My heart sank . . . It was as if play was the proverbial four-letter-word that kept kids from learning.

I realised that we might be stuck in a “fast-food culture” understanding of how children develop and learn. Are we trapped in a notion that there is a quick fix — one thing that will do the magic — to kick-start a trajectory of performance, prosperity and success? And so we miss the most important part of laying a foundation to succeed and, alas, compromise quality learning for “fast food” learning?

Play is continuously misunderstood, and very often seen as only frivolous and entertaining. The critical importance of play as one of the essential foundations in children’s learning, development and well being is overlooked or seen as a “side event” in the development of human beings. This creates a challenge to be addressed through concrete actions, evidence and advocacy. There is no quick fix or magical power to do this. It requires dedication, persistence, perseverance and champions.

Two weeks after my one-minute radio phone-in, I found myself at the LEGO IDEA Conference in Billund, Denmark, inspired to explore, with the foremost experts in the world, quality in learning. It was indeed reaffirming to hear play is central to early learning and scaffolds development and mastery of essential and important executive function skills. Our children need to be ready for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century and play brings together essential skills through quality learning that will support success in the early years, classroom and future world of work. Quality does not fit in a box. It will not allow itself to be rigidly defined, standardised and subjected to tests. Quality is active, playful, explorative, co-operative; it accumulates the skills and knowledge needed from the start — rooted in play — and carries us into a future filled with hope, prospects and opportunity.

Quality in early learning and development is engaging, future-oriented, progressive, exploratory, incremental, timely, flexible, inclusive, creative, outcome-focused, and more, all woven into a tapestry of PLAY.

Someone asked me what we are doing in South Africa to support play, and more importantly, play-based learning. I rattled off policies and documents that clearly show a national-level commitment to endorse play. I must’ve sounded like an advertisement jingle . . . “Play is one of the key areas identified in the National Plan of Action for Children in South Africa: 2012–2017, establishing it as a right of children, important in learning, linking it to recreation, and that children with disabilities must be included in play. The Children’s Act No. 38 of 2005 sets out that engagement in play is an important consideration when dealing with children.”

“The South African National Curriculum Framework for Children from Birth to Four is rooted in play as an essential component of learning. In the Department of Health’s The Road to Health Booklet, the importance of play is emphasised as part of the health promotion messages, together with feeding practices and communication advice. And lastly, the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy sets play as one of the underpinning principles of the policy and as an essential part of early learning and development.”

Impressive indeed — I thought to myself after I caught my breath. Though I felt obliged to add that, nonetheless, there are persistent challenges, i.e. play is not well understood and utilised as integral to children’s learning and development and play-based learning are not universally practiced in early childhood development programmes and foundation phase education.


Thus, there is a recognised need for support and training that will enhance the capacity of early childhood development practitioners and foundation phase educators to facilitate early learning through pedagogies rooted in play.

Meeting these challenges resulted in a partnership between UNICEF, Department of Basic Education and the LEGO Foundation to enhance learning through the power of play, which includes teacher training. Thanks to the LEGO Foundation’s contribution, approximately 1.5 million children will have parents/caretakers who will understand play as part of stimulation, early learning, and development within three years’ time. Three million young children will receive support, care, early learning, and development using play as a learning tool and strategy through the training of early childhood development practitioners and educators.

Improving the quality of early learning in an active manner and laying a foundation to achieve not only advances the goals set out South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030: Our Future-make it work, but also the Sustainable Development Goals. The world we want starts with a commitment to the importance of play in learning and development…daily and for life (Thanks, Hanne Rasmussen and Mitch Resnick).

Play is not four-letter-word: it is an empowering word filled with concepts, ideas and surprises that carefully and meticulously facilitate quality learning and lays the foundations that will advance humanity.

-André Viviers is an Education Specialist (Early Childhood Development) at UNICEF South Africa.

You Might Also Like