Globalization and technological advances are rapidly changing economies and societies around the world, transforming how we learn, live and work. This “information age” or “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is characterized by developments in robotics and machine learning; the internet and means of communication and accessing information; and transport and engineering.

These advances are not automatically benefiting everyone. The skills needed to thrive in the 21st century are not the same as they were in the 20th century. To harness the opportunities and tackle the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our children need to develop a breadth of skills.

These skills include more than just functional literacy, numeracy and general knowledge; they extend to physical, social, cognitive, creative and emotional skills - particularly creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.

Way off track

Yet we currently have a global learning crisis. World leaders have made commitments to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. However, the statistics show we are way off track in achieving this goal.

Here are some of them:

- More than a staggering 600 million, or close to 60% of all children and adolescents, are not able to read or do basic maths.

- Despite progress in education enrolment rates, there are still 260 million children out of school globally.

- Of those in school, 400 million will leave before they turn 12, and more than 800 million (50% of children in developing countries) will end their secondary schooling with no recognizable qualifications for the modern workforce.

- Education systems are struggling to support children to learn the breadth of skills they need.

The learning crisis in Africa

This learning crisis is acute in Africa, in particular in the sub-Saharan region. While primary school enrolment rates have increased from 60% to 80% in the past 20 years, on average less than 20% of primary school students in the region pass the minimum level of proficiency in reading and mathematics, compared to more than 50% of students in Latin America and even higher numbers in East Asia.

Subsequently, 88% of all children and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa will not be able to read proficiently by the time they are of age to complete primary and lower secondary education.

By 2055, Africa will be home to 1 billion children, an estimated 40% of the global total. The importance of investing in African children’s development and learning cannot be overstated. Education has the potential to be a great equalizer, but it too frequently separates the haves from the have-nots. Unless we can identify ways to accelerate learning for those currently left behind, many individuals and countries across the region will likely find themselves unable to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We urgently need a skills revolution, especially across Africa, to address this global learning crisis.

Africa’s current commitments to skills

Although the current situation illustrates the scale of the challenge facing many African nations, countries can “leapfrog" inequality, harnessing innovation to accelerate educational progress. There are some encouraging commitments and signs of progress.

At the regional level, African governments have agreed a bold vision for an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa”, called Agenda 2063. It states that Africa’s human capital will be fully developed as its most precious resource, through sustained investments in education. This is supported by the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) 2016-2025, which places an emphasis on improved skills development, albeit only with a focus on technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and science and engineering at present.

There is a big variation in how far countries are going to adjust their education policies and systems towards a greater focus on 21st-century skills, as this interactive map illustrates. Overall, there needs to be a much greater focus on this across Africa.

Play as a powerful tool

Skills such as creativity and collaboration have less to do with what is being taught and more to do with how children learn. Therefore, school systems need to evolve beyond traditional teaching methods to support the development of these skills. Advances in brain science and innovative teaching methods have expanded our knowledge of how students learn effectively. We know that children’s brains are most efficient at incorporating new information through exploration, play and interactions with caring adults.

To redefine how our children learn and to empower them for the future, we must stop overlooking a powerful part of the solution: learning through play. In play, we learn to create, collaborate and solve problems in ways that bolster traditional and critical subject learning in schools.

For example:

- Rwanda, working with Right to Play, has integrated play-based learning into its curriculum, and is developing relevant teacher training and resources.

- In Tanzania and Uganda, BRAC has established Play Labs for pre-primary-aged children, which are showing that children develop social skills and a love for learning through play-based approaches.

- In Kenya, Kidogo has developed a play-based social franchise daycare approach to increase the opportunities for quality childcare. Early learning is a key area of investment needed to leapfrog the skills gap.

Similarly, South Africa’s Department of Basic Education has been working with the LEGO Foundation, UNICEF and partners to train teachers to adopt play-based approaches in the classroom to support key skills development. Using a simple tool called “Six Bricks”, children have gained confidence in expressing themselves, as well as critical thinking and reflection skills. Acknowledging that skills development does not just happen in the classroom, the South African government has also been implementing efforts to bolster parents and caregivers to support their children’s skills development.

Opportunity for future commitments

These issues will be explored at the Africa Continental Conference on Play-Based Learning in South Africa from 25-27 February 2019. It will be hosted by the South African Department of Basic Education, in partnership with UNICEF, the Association for Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the LEGO Foundation.

Government representatives and key stakeholders from across the continent will come together to discuss how play can be a critical tool to support children’s development, and how to incorporate learning-through-play approaches into their national systems, to help achieve the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy and Agenda 2063.

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”, said Nelson Mandela. When we add play to education, it becomes the most powerful weapon to equip children for a changing world.