Playtime Can Bridge the Developmental Gap in Early Childhood

Special Focus : Roads Less Traveled: Alternative Approaches to Education
Early Childhood July 20, 2018

Sarah is the 3-year-old daughter of one of Ubongo’s employees and comes to the office with her mother almost every day. We’ve watched her grow from a little baby to the active toddler who likes to play, draw, run around the office and ask lots of questions. She’s always been outgoing, confident and curious. However, all of this changed when she started nursery school. The once inquisitive and kind child became aggressive and began to throw tantrums.

In Tanzania and most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, many schools view playing as disruptive and bad behaviour that needs to be corrected rather than encouraged. However, playing is critical to social-emotional and cognitive development. In the first years of life, playing helps children understand and develop communication skills, language, and motor skills. As they get older, it helps strengthen memory, reasoning skills, and builds cooperation.

Currently, it’s estimated that over 44% of children below the age of 5 in sub-Saharan Africa have under-developed social-emotional and cognitive skills[1]. This is tied to delinquency, unemployment, and lack of empathy in adulthood. However, stimulation through meaningful play can help children who are falling behind developmentally. For instance, in the 1980s, a group of American professors undertook a research study in Kingston, Jamaica to test the effects of caregiver engagement and nutrition on children who were stunted[2]. The researchers had three test groups; one with children who were stunted; they were given nutritional supplements and stimulated through regular play. The second group was of children who were also stunted but didn’t receive any additional stimulation or nutrition. And the last group were of children who developed at a normal rate; they served as a comparison group. Over the years, the researchers continuously monitored the groups of children. They discovered that the stunted children who had received stimulation through play and nutritional supplements had caught up with the normally developed kids. They had better jobs, wages, education, and were more socially stable. In short, the intervention in early childhood by introducing stimulation and nutrition managed to change the trajectory of the lives of these children.

Organizations like BRAC have established play labs in different communities across Tanzania, but these only reach a small part of the population. Other organizations like Children in Crossfire and UNICEF are working directly with pre-primary institutions to incorporate learning through play into early childhood education. However, only 47 per cent of all 5-year-olds are enrolled at the pre-primary school level in 2015. (Sources: Basic Education Statistics in Tanzania (BEST)). This means that the majority of children in the country are not getting the appropriate stimulation necessary for positive cognitive and social-emotional development. This particularly affects children from low-income families, as primary school children from the poorest families are three times less likely to attend school than those from the wealthiest households.

In sub-Saharan Africa, most children under the age of 5 spend the majority of their time at home with caregivers. So, if we can get caregivers to understand the importance of learning through play in early childhood, then maybe we can start to fill the developmental gap.

At Ubongo, in addition to creating edutainment for children, we also develop content that gives caregivers the resources to help them foster the physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being of their children. We’ve found that there are 3 critical steps to positive caregiver engagement:

1. Understanding what motivates caregivers:

The first step to creating any type of intervention for caregivers is to deeply understand them by employing human-centered research as there are certain knowledge gaps and cultural barriers that inform their parenting choices. Such research includes conducting focus-groups, and prototyping ideas with caregivers to create content and/or a program that is relatable, relevant and effective.

2. Meet parents where they are at:

Mediums like TV, radio and mobile are far reaching across sub-Saharan Africa so distributing caregiver engagement content through these platforms can reach even more parents through the technologies they already have access to.

3. Collaborate with partners who are already working with parents

Another way to reach parents is to work with people like health practitioners, adult-learning institutions, and other programs that are directly interacting with parents. This also increases the likelihood of receptivity as parents already have relationships with these institutions.

Many people in the education and innovation field are concerned with how we can help kids be more creative, however, the real problem is that we socialize children out of creativity by not valuing important developmental tools like playing. At Ubongo, we believe that every child is born with magical potential in them already; it just needs to be nurtured. However, this cannot be done without support from parents, who are our children’s first and most important teachers.


[1] McCoy DC, Peet ED, Ezzati M, Danaei G, Black MM, et al. (2017) Correction: Early Childhood Developmental Status in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: National, Regional, and Global Prevalence Estimates Using Predictive Modelling. PLOS Medicine 14(1): e1002233.

[2] A 20-year Follow-Up to an Early Childhood Stimulation Program in Jamaica, – Susan Chang-Lopez, Paul Gertler, Sally Grantham-McGregor, James Heckman, Rodrigo Pinto, Christel Vermeerch, Susan Walker and Arianna Zanolini