Creating opportunities for a playful childhood

November 7, 2017 by

Inside one of BRAC’s play labs in Uganda.

Creating opportunities for a playful childhood

When you think of play, an all too familiar sense of nostalgia usually follows. However, did you know the art that you painted with your fingers, the clay that you moulded or the block towers that you built with your imagination as a child, would determine your behaviour today?

According to child psychologists Gary Landreth and Linda Homeyer (1998)[i], “Everything a child is, does, and becomes may at one time or another be demonstrated through play.” Despite this insight, many of my professional and personal conversations around the concept and benefits of play are encountered with the following questions:

“How does play contribute to learning?”

“Are toys a feasible option for children in poverty?”

“What is the role of adults? Can adults be playful too?”

I often try not to answer these questions directly and instead offer the inquirer an invitation to visit BRAC’s play labs. Here, one will be met with the sight of an airy, well-lit room or open courtyard full of smiling pre-schoolers (3-5 years old) immersed in the joys of learning. They are not learning through notebooks and pencils. They are doing it through play!

7,200 children from low-income families from across Uganda, Tanzania and Bangladesh gather in 240 of these learning spaces.

Children here have access to age-appropriate play materials, play-based curriculum and indoor and outdoor play spaces that ensure holistic development.

Studies continuously link  play to the development of executive functions, resiliency, creativity, problem-solving, social skills and emotional well-being. Play-based early childhood development (ECD) is now widely recognised as a key promoter in developing essential life skills of children (Anderson-McNamee, 2010; Whitebread, 2012; Moore, 2014). We initiated play-based learning as one of our key approaches to early childhood education.

Children learn, develop, and practice innovative behaviours and social competencies by interacting with the world around them through play from a very early age (Pellegrini, Dupuis and Smith, 2007).

I often meet people who tell me toys are not for children who live in poverty. I tell them – toys are for everyone. At BRAC’s play labs, play materials and toys are recycled and locally sourced, and developed indigenously with care by parents, caregivers and local community members, making toys affordable for families. I met a mother in Uganda who told me, “I had never imagined that I can make toys for my child!”

A BRAC play lab in Karamoja, Uganda.

You don’t have to be a child to play.

BRAC’s play labs are connecting parents and children, encouraging playful parenting through regular play sessions. Salma, the mother of a four-year-old from one of BRAC’s play labs in Tanzania, says that she spends time at the play lab with her child as much as she can, while helping the play leader manage the children. She finds a deeper connection with her child because she plays the role of the toy maker for her son.

BRAC’s play labs also create livelihood opportunities for young women from the community by training them as play leaders.

Play leaders can easily connect with the children as they come from the same community. Anna, a play leader from Uganda says, “Children no longer live in isolation in my community. They learn how to collaborate with one another, and have developed a sense of sharing and empathy.” She also adds, “The respect that I have earned from my village after being trained as a play leader greatly impacts my life and living as I can better meet the needs of my own family.”

Children in  play labs  explore new materials, environments and relationships (with peers, parents and play leaders) using their instincts, observations and actions. At BRAC’s play labs, we support children to build their minds in the same way that they create their colourful block towers with passion, imagination, and most importantly, with joy. Our play labs are an innovation that ensures joyful learning and fosters a playful childhood for those who have the least access to learning opportunities.

BRAC’s play labs continue to make it evident that play is necessary. It is easier to provide answers to the questions I used to encounter often:

“Yes, play contributes to learning. Playing is learning!”

“Children in poverty can afford toys!”

“Adults can be and should be playful!”


This November at the Frugal Innovation Forum, over 200 international delegates from the government, non-profits, corporate organisations, educational institutions, private sector, and startups will come together to engage in conversations around scaling quality education for all.  

The Frugal Innovation Forum is a platform for leaders from the Global South to connect and explore solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges.

You can follow the conversation on our blog and social media.


[i] Landreth G. and Homeyer L. (1998). Play as the language of children’s feelings. In D.P. Frongberg and D.M. Bergen (Eds.), Play from birth to twelve and beyond: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. (pp.193-198). New York: Garland.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila is the head of early childhood development and girls’ education programme at BRAC International.








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