Nondipara, Dhaka

On a recent Monday morning, 25 excited 3- and 4-year-old children are gathered in a brightly painted hut in Bonoshree, a poor suburb of sprawling Dhaka. As a group, they read the Bangladeshi version of Are You My Mother? and sing a song about sharing fruit. They dance and giggle with Farzana, their “play leader.” Then they scatter to five different areas of the room for 45 minutes of free play. One is a designated “dream world,” filled with toys and cordoned off from the rest of the space with ethereal pink and yellow curtains. There’s “story world” for books, “private world” for quiet play, “color world” for arts and crafts, and “outside world,” in a makeshift courtyard outside the door.

Wealthy parents worldwide send their children to preschools and nurseries that sound a lot like this one—places that incorporate research on child development and neuroscience to enable children to learn through play. But such opportunities are often unavailable for children in the world’s poorest communities, who are more often found at home with parents that are both too busy to play and unaware of its benefits to children, shaping the way they think and interact with the world.

The class in Dhaka is part of a global experiment to bring play to the kids who need it most and usually get it least. At more than 513 “play labs” in Uganda, Tanzania and Bangladesh, kids participate a child-centered curriculum built by a team of global play scholars delivered in a space designed by architects, right down to the corners for stories, crafts and dreaming. The model, funded with $8.8 million from the Lego Foundation and Porticus, and delivered by BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, has been developed over the past three years, and draws from BRAC’s over 40 years of experience developing schools for the poorest members of Bangladeshi society.

The people behind the effort admit the idea can be a tough sell in many communities. “This is a completely new idea,” said Erum Mariam, director of BRAC University’s Institute of Educational Development. “Children here have to be a certain way—measured, quiet. It’s all about conforming. The idea that they do it at their own pace and that they should express themselves, that does not exist.”

Shifting that mindset is no easy task. But the researchers argue that the potential benefits of incorporating play are enormous, extending beyond simply making kids ready for school to making them better prepared for life. The play labs will also provide valuable evidence as to whether a low-cost, play-based, child-centered model actually works. More than 400 kids will be part of a quasi-experimental research project that measures how kids enrolled in the centers develop over time, looking for changes in their cognition, self-regulation, oral language, and playfulness.

Economic research shows that funneling money into programs that support children before the age of 5 and their parents pays off for governments, helping to close gaps between poor kids and their wealthier peers. But these programs are often small. If the research proves what BRAC and its partners believe—that play leads to measurable improvements in holistic learning—Bangladesh could offer the world a case study in how to effectively invest in the youngest children in low- and middle-income countries at scale.

Working hard.
Image: Jenny Anderson

“I don’t give them exercise books, I just let them play”

For now, the play labs initiative is quite small. But in Bangladesh, it’s already gaining traction with the government. In March 2018, play labs were piloted in 50 primary schools, and in November, the government agreed to try 250 more.

The World Bank is also watching. Since 2012, it has tripled its investment in early childhood development programs, to nearly $5 billion. As the global development community becomes increasingly convinced of the importance of allocating resources to young children and their parents, it’s keeping a close watch on programs that can generate evidence of what good early learning looks like.

“We know play is incredibly important for children’s development and we want to convince policy makers to invest in play based programs,” said Amanda Devercelli, global lead for early childhood development at the World Bank. “To do this we need more evidence from programs like play labs that show it’s possible to deliver high-quality play-based programs at scale.”

The play labs are meant to be a simple, low-cost model. Each “lab” employs a young local woman to work as a play leader. For six days, she receives training from BRAC on basic concepts of early childhood development, brain development, care and safety, communication with children, and the play lab curriculum, called “Let’s Play and Have Fun.” They also learn about child-led development—that is, running the labs so that kids have the space and time to do what what they want, not what teachers think they should learn.

Once a month, play leaders get a refresher course. “This is key,” said Mariam. It means the women continue to learn about science, development, and children, and also have a place to share challenges and setbacks with one another. Built into the training is an emphasis on how to make play leaders more playful. “It’s not just children’s playfulness, it’s also adults,” Mariam adds. Also once a month, parents meet with the play leader to learn about how to support their child’s development and hear about their child’s progress.

Building language skills.
Image: Jenny Anderson

The classes are big—each has about 25 to 30 kids—and they come in three shifts staggered throughout the day: ages 1-3 for two hours; ages 3-4 and 4-5 come for two-and-a-half hours. The size, and shifts, help keep costs down. In addition to the play leaders, two volunteers—mothers, sisters or grandmothers of the children, usually—act as assistants. Not only do the family members provide an extra pair of hands, they also work as potential ambassadors. If they buy in, they can help organically build community support.

Although the play labs are mostly free, parents are asked to make a token contribution so they have a stake in its success. The cost is 30 taka ($0.36) a month for 1- to 3-year-olds; 40 taka for 3- to 4-year-olds; and 50 taka for 4- to 5-year olds.

The template for the design of the space is the work of a team of architects from BRAC’s Institute for Education, though each individual play lab is decorated by the community and the kids. The architects helped build benches with local bamboo, shelves for toys that line the sides of the room so as not to take up precious space, and recycled bottles for ventilation.The architects also worked with curriculum experts to ensure the space would support learning: outdoor play, for example, builds gross and fine motor skills and social development; songs, rhymes and storytelling support language, vocabulary, and literacy; dramatic, social or group play supports socio-emotional development like socialization, self-regulation, sharing and negotiation.

Women from the local community also get involved with the play labs by gathering once every three months to make decorations for the labs together, including intricate chandeliers, clay toys, recycled bottle tea sets, embroidered pillows and mats. Each play lab is run by committee of community members in conjunction with the play leader. The goal is to give every village a sense of ownership over its space; locals can be proud because they have a say in it.

In coming.
Image: Jenny Anderson

Over the course of visits to five play labs in Bangladesh, play leaders engaged the children with clucks, coos, and laughter, while also letting them be. And during free play, the kids managed conflicts well. When one girl named Moni asked a young boy to move so she could swing across the room on a satin cloth, he refused. She asked again. He was busy stacking blocks. And so Moni decided to move her launch pad, a bamboo stool, in order to avoid him. No one intervened in this exchange; many observed it. This is a radically different approach in a country where many still believe that the best leaning happens when kids sit still and follow directions.

“I am not a teacher, I am a play lab leader,” said Tania, who works at the Begunbari play lab in the suburbs of Dhaka. “If I am a teacher I am saying ‘do this’ and telling them what to do. I don’t give them exercise books, I just let them play.”

“There’s a preconception that from the early years they are led into a world of textbooks, and there’s no room for them to play,” said Sarwat Sarah Sarwar, deputy manager for advocacy at BRAC’s Institute of Educational Development. “We want to show that play is not just a way to pass the time, but it is also learning.”

Image: Jenny Anderson

The science of play

In the early 20th century, a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky proposed that play was critical to children’s development—specifically to their development of language and their ability to control their thinking and emotions, or to self-regulate.

Vygotsky is now considered one of the great educational thinkers of the 20th century. His ideas have proven salient as more sophisticated measures have been tested and developed to measure learning far beyond how much a child can read or write. In 2010, David Whitebread, an emeritus professor and developmental cognitive psychologist at Cambridge University, published a paper showing that language and self-control are the most powerful predictors of children’s academic achievement and their emotional well-being. A key way to develop these skills is play, he said in an interview in Cambridge, noting that the skills that children learn from play are “at least as important as being able to read and write.” (Whitebread is a member of the play consortium who developed the curriculum.)

Governments, however, generally invest first in children’s health, and then in their education, missing the massive opportunity presented when the brain is most malleable and open to learning and experience. “Children are born ready to learn, and we must maximize their potential in the early years when their brains develop faster than at any other time in life,” says an early learning publication(pdf) at the World Bank.

The question, then, is how best to support families in order to lay the foundations for helping kids to become healthy, well-adjusted human beings. Research suggests that play influences (pdf) children’s cognitive development, or how they learn to focus attention, communicate, and problem-solve; their executive function, related to how kids plan and manage time, set goals, and regulate their own behavior; and their social and emotional skills. And randomized control trials of physical play in 7- to 9-year-olds showed that play enhanced kids’ executive function and cognitive flexibility.

Not everyone is sold on the idea that all play translates to tangible benefits for children later on. “Links between pretend play in early childhood and later cognitive development have not been systematically demonstrated,” writes Paul Harris, a professor of education at the Harvard School of Education.” The same goes for links to creativity in later life.”

But he cautions that a lack of evidence does not mean we should stop supporting it. After all, pretend play—one type of play—emerges spontaneously in almost all children across cultures, and mirrors what adults do when they create alternate realities in film and books. This suggests pretend play may have some kind of evolutionary role. “Pretend play is strange, intriguing and consequential. It matters.”

“We feel joy coming”

When the play leaders in Dhaka started working at the labs, they had to go door to door and ask people to send their kids. Parents were not receptive. “What’s the point of this” and “What’s the use of play?” were common refrains, according to Farzana, the play leader in Nondipara, and Tania, who works at the Begunbari play lab.

But word gets around in small villages. Once the play labs formed, local kids would peer in and see the games, enticing them to ask to attend. Meanwhile, parents could see that play was helping their children, and talked about it with their neighbors.

Free play.
Image: Jenny Anderson

Sapna, a volunteer at the play lab in Nondipara, explained her previous views on play: “I’d rather do housework than waste my time with play … Now I see the changes that happen.” Her daughter is bolder now, and talks more at home. Shahnaz, another volunteer, said her daughter takes way more risks than she used to. “She is more confident.”

“Now the parents complain that the kids won’t eat before they come because they are eager to arrive,” said Farzana.

Farzana, who exudes the joy and patience that characterizes many teachers of young children, said she understood the parents’ misgivings. “I was very impatient, I hated the chaos and the noise,” she said, describing her own son’s childhood. She learned through her training that children need to express themselves, that they are developmentally built for noise and movement and exploration—not compliance. Now, if she scolds her son, he cites her training: “Mom, where do you work?”

The benefits of the play labs are meant to extend beyond the children and into their communities. At the Rajakhali play lab, mothers grandmothers and children gathered to make toys together. Packed into the small space in circles embroidering, sewing, and molding clay, they admitted this was their own form of play.”We feel joy coming,” said one grandmother as she shaped a clay smartphone.

Afroza, another play leader, says that when the materials-making workshops first started, the mothers would not leave their work as domestic workers or garment workers to come. “Why would I come if I don’t get paid?” they said. But over the space of a few years, they came to enjoy chatting with one another as they worked together on projects and learned new artisan techniques from one another. “They’ve gained in confidence from what they can make,” Afroza said. “I have learned so much from all of them.”

Moms make the toys.
Image: Jenny Anderson

Staying power

The current cost per child is about $50-$60 per year in Bangladesh. Mariam of BRAC said the goal is to get the cost down to $45 to $50 make it more accessible for the government and other foundations, though some suggest that such a figure is still too expensive. This means keeping salaries for the play leaders low. Since the play leaders are already required to have at least an education through at least the eighth grade, making them qualified for other employment, some women feel underpaid. BRAC says attrition rates are 8% due to pregnancy, marriage and migration, suggesting the women are happy with their work.

And while the play labs have made inroads in local communities, not everyone is on board. Parents with low levels of literacy, including migrants from rural areas, have been more receptive to it, said Mariam. “The more educated parents talk about academics,” she said. “They want to know why there are not exercise books.”

There is the obvious question of what happens if the program proves effective, but kids are then feed into a subpar, rote-based education system. “There will be a huge disjunction between what they do in a play lab and what they do in school,” says Whitebread. He is also hoping to find a way to make sure the volunteers get more training. “The play lab leaders are not in a position to train them and that’s a weakness of the model,” he admits.

And even if the children show gains in many areas, those effects could fade out over time, making policy makers question the investment. However, there’s reason for optimism. One powerful finding from research done in Jamaica and North Carolina starting in the 1970s, which established the key benefits of parents playing and engaging with infants and young children, was that some benefits like cognition can fade. But others, including higher levels of employment and earnings, were robust among children even 25 years later.

The future is fun

The original play lab model included infants, but it turns out they don’t play much, and mothers were reluctant to come. So BRAC has built out more support for pregnant mothers and those with new infants. These programs combine the same elements of teaching mothers about how to support their babies development, and engage and play with them, both through home visits and in a group setting in a courtyard. The play lab model has also been adapted to use in the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh.

For now, support seems to be building, at least in communities which have a play lab nearby. Hanufa, a local woman in Nondipara,said that she has three sons and four granddaughters. This concept of play is new, she said. “It was not here before.” But her sons tell her the children are progressing and Nabila, her granddaughter, cannot wait to go every day. She is always asking her grandmother to play. “I like that they are so active,” she said, using a term “chanchal,” which means smart and energetic. “They have so many experiences there, and they learn.”