Learning through Play: A Concept Proven over Generations

September 6, 2023


Paul Otwate

Research Officer


Play activities have always been integral to early childhood development, epitomized by the OMO brand of detergent advertisement with the iconic tagline, “Dirt is good.” Research now justifies childhood games as essential rites of passage that shape mental and physical and cognitive development of young children.

One of the games that girls used to play in the 1990s involved the player throwing a rock up in the air and attempting to gather others on the ground as quickly as possible before the airborne rock fell to the ground. On the other hand, boys played a game of marbles popularly referred to as ‘bano.’ The two games aided the children to learn how to handle and manipulate small objects, and through that, they perfect their fine motor skills, the ability to make movements using the small muscles of their hands and wrists.

Through play, these skills are further developed throughout childhood to support tasks in school, work, and everyday living. That simple game children played shaped their writing, typing, and many other skills we take for granted. Research by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) that seeks to strengthen the capacity of teachers on play-based learning in sub-Saharan Africa gives an appreciation of the knowledge that children gather in oblivion through what may be thought of as mindless childhood games.

Without even knowing it, while playing a simple game of catch, children begin to shape their lives by developing hand-eye coordination, the simultaneous motor control of eye and hand movements. Hand-eye coordination aids in grasping objects and contributes to activities ranging from sports, music-reading, computer skills, among others. Social skills are also developed as a result of group play activities. According to the World Health Organization’s Nurturing Care Framework, early childhood interactions support the development of language and other social skills.

We live in a time whereby play opportunities for children are reducing by the day. Children are being raised more sedentary than in years past because of confined spaces at home and in some care facilities. For such children, the opportunities to play are limited. This affects their creativity and slows down the achievement of developmental milestones. While the small movements that make up fine motor skills come naturally to most children, they require some degree of active engagement for others, and lack of play activities exacerbates these developmental delays and challenges.

It may sound strange why organizations such as APHRC and others, working alongside the Global Partnership for Education, are investing in strengthening the capacity of teachers to incorporate play in their lessons. This is especially because play was something that children engaged in with their peers with little to no adult engagement. That notwithstanding, it is said that when we know better, we do better. The school environment is the greatest resource for building a child-friendly, play-inspired learning culture, especially for children under five. This is where children’s creativity is built and their interests and adventure-spirit sparked. It is also interesting to learn that what children discover while having fun is never forgotten. It is also important to note that early years are the best years for children to learn as, at this point in their lives, their brains make more neurological connections than at any other developmental stage.

While teachers are doing their best to adapt learning through play, the benefits of this learning approach can be maximized at home. It is however important to note that parents may not have enough time to support play activities at home past investing in the purchase of play materials. The research by APHRC will therefore bridge the gap by equipping teachers to guide the children to learn skills that may otherwise be delayed or lost when children only engage in passive pastime activities like watching cartoons. This research would also double up as a bond to strengthen the linkage between the school and the home, particularly to intensify play’s relevancy in children.


By Charity Waweru-Mwangi, Linda Oloo, Paul Otwate, Silas Onyango, Margaret Nampijja and Patricia Kitsao-Wekulo