The place of play in early learning: Highlights from a stakeholder engagement workshop

November 3, 2022

Quality early childhood education (ECE) can enhance school readiness for 4-5-year-olds who are about to join primary school, positively impact learning outcomes, and increase school completion rates at primary and secondary levels. The positive effects are powerful for marginalized children due to factors such as poverty, gender, disability, and more. Children are naturally active participants in their learning and instinctively use play to develop physical, social, emotional, and creative developmental skills. Learning through play (LtP) approaches leverage natural behavior by using a spectrum of playful practices to support children’s learning and developmental potential in their homes, schools, and communities.

The Africa Early Childhood Network (AfECN), the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), and UNICEF have formed a consortium for the research project titled “Promoting positive early learning outcomes through strengthened  capacity in learning through play: Evidence from Nigeria, Gambia, and Kenya.” The Knowledge, Innovation, and Exchange (KIX)-funded project, with support from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), seeks to generate knowledge and enhance the capacities of the education workforce, parents, and communities to use and promote LtP approaches in pre-primary education by building on existing positive and playful practices, with a dedicated focus on girls, marginalized children, and those from disadvantaged segments of the society.

To promote a shared vision of integrating LtP approaches into ECE models, stakeholders will be involved from the beginning to facilitate fair and equitable partnerships to enhance their sense of ownership, continual engagement, and buy-in. In line with this, in the first week of August 2022, APHRC convened a week-long workshop with policy stakeholders from both national and sub-national levels. The workshop included 18 policy stakeholders representing the Ministry of Education’s Directorate of Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE), Teacher Education, Policy, Partnerships and East Africa Affairs, Quality Standards, and Special Needs Education. The sub-national level was represented by participants from three county governments – Kajiado, Kiambu, and Nairobi. The workshop’s main purpose was to create a shared understanding of the learning through play project and co-design an LtP approach building on an existing ECE model.

During plenary and breakout sessions, participants underlined the importance and the array of benefits resulting from LtP. Some highlighted benefits for children included building problem-solving skills, enhancing cooperation /positive relationships, developing effective communication skills, promoting cognitive development, and feeding children’s curiosity. Further, it was noted that adaptations to cater to learners with special needs are critical in ensuring that these learners apply their faculties and achieve developmental milestones, even if at a different pace. This assertion is backed by evidence on the role of early interventions in reducing developmental delays. 

A representative from the Directorate of Special Needs representative noted provisions that should be considered for special needs learners because of the barriers that come with the difference in abilities. For instance, children with autism spectrum disorders may be less social or imaginative with play – such learners need guidance during play to support their development. Discovery play, physical play, manipulative play, social play, creative play, and imaginative play are essential, particularly when implementing play-based learning for special needs learners. An official from the ECD Department in one of the counties highlighted that gender biases were a barrier to enhancing inclusivity in LtP, as there were some instances where boys were not keen to play with girls. This tendency is because they are conditioned at an early age not to interact with girls and are not open to interacting with materials adapted from products perceived as female such as lotion bottles. In the same setting, prevailing social norms deter young girls from wearing shorts, standard attire for physical education (PE) classes. Therefore, the gendered perceptions towards play in this setting limit the kind of activities that young boys and girls can engage in and the full use of play. 

The workshop identified key barriers to LtP under various themes: infrastructure, social, workforce, Information Communication and Technology (ICT), policy, emergency, and emerging issues related barriers. What was noted under policy-related barriers was that national-level policies that should provide an enabling environment did not do so. Workforce development relates to pre-service and in-service training of teachers; this, in most cases, is characterized by inadequate preparation. When considering ICT integration, it was noted that we do not have a  national framework, standards, and guidelines for implementation. Yet, these are required for any digital content to be approved. Resource barriers relate to infrastructure and material availability which is affected by the budgetary provision. In most (41 of the 47) counties, ECD budgets are non-existent. At the global level, limited funding affects prioritization at the national level. For example, the Global Partnership Exchange funding is directed to national-level priorities. In addition, international standards often need to be more ambitious for some contexts to achieve. Regarding emergencies, the Covid-19 pandemic, catastrophic weather conditions, and conflicts featured in discussions, while social-cultural issues, norms, and beliefs came out strongly at the community level. Emerging issues pertained to access to technology, such as cyber insecurity and access to digital devices.

Despite the barriers, participants noted that the current Competency Based Curriculum and learnings from implementing the Tayari program offer opportunities and entry points for integrating learning through play. Across the board, most teachers exhibit limited capacity in implementing LtP. The most effective pathway was highlighted as capacity strengthening. As a response to capacity gaps, the government introduced teacher training reforms. The minimum qualification is now a diploma-level qualification. Teaching practice has been enhanced and reframed to incorporate practicum, under which one would be required to secure placement for pre-service training. The quality assurance department indicated that teachers’ skills and capacity are non-negotiable regardless of the implementation context. This was noted as an important tenet in ensuring all children, no matter where they are, benefit from a workforce with the right set of skills and a clear understanding of LtP pedagogies.

These insights are instrumental in co-designing the KIX model of implementation by the consortium partners. The project is envisioned to strengthen the capacity of play-based learning in the Gambia, Kenya, and Nigeria. Capacity strengthening will be achieved through knowledge generation on context-based innovation levers and conditions for scaling LtP approaches. The intended outcomes are to strengthen the capacities of teachers, parents, and other relevant stakeholders to design and implement play-based approaches at pre-primary and early primary levels. Further, the project’s focus is also to mobilize knowledge exchange and use it to promote policy uptake of learning through play approaches. If achieved, it is anticipated that we will be a step ahead in strengthening a smooth transition from preschool to primary school, not only at the country level but also at regional levels where the Africa Early Childhood Network plays an advocacy role.