Davos Agenda

How playful learning helps children develop social and emotional skills

Playful learning is one of the most effective ways for children to develop social and emotional skills.

Playful learning is one of the most effective ways for children to develop social and emotional skills. Image: LEGO Foundation

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen
Chief Executive Officer, The LEGO Foundation
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Urgent attention to children’s learning is needed amid global challenges that are threatening future generations.
  • Traditional education systems must be transformed to incorporate the development of social and emotional skills.
  • The time to act is now - children need these skills to navigate an uncertain and unstable world compounded by the impact of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.
  • Playful learning is one of the most effective ways for children to develop social and emotional skills.

We have an urgent responsibility to ensure the next generation is equipped with the holistic skills they need to navigate a complex and uncertain future. Children’s development has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF estimates this has affected over 1.6 billion learners, and we are now facing an early childhood emergency on a global scale. However, global education recovery presents a unique opportunity to rebuild better education systems and incorporate the development of social and emotional skills into education systems.

Yet, we cannot do it alone.

Reforming education to incorporate development of social and emotional skills

Reforming education systems is a complex process, particularly in countries facing political, economic and societal challenges. Policymakers across the world can seek inspiration and learnings from the efforts of other countries to help them implement sustained systemic reform.

Have you read?

The LEGO Foundation’s inaugural report, “Rebuilding Systems – National Stories of Social and Emotional Learning Reform” details the experiences of six pioneering policymakers from governments that have attempted to reform their education systems to better enhance learners’ social and emotional skills. Policymakers in Australia, Colombia, Finland, Peru, South Africa, and South Korea used a variety of strategies to implement critical reforms on a national level.

We have learned that several factors can contribute to the success of education systems reform.

Reform is a journey, not an event

Systems reform is not marked by a single event or moment; it requires considerable time, effort, and stakeholder engagement, as well as compromise and negotiation. Incremental steps determine long-term impact.

In Australia, the first National Curriculum Board was set up in 2008, yet reforms were not completed until 2015. The reforms established Australia’s first national curriculum, moving away from the federated system. Policymakers ensured the new system was outward facing in the context of new technological advancements and complex global pressures that Australian children would face in their lifetimes. Today, more schools and teachers are promoting new activities to enrich children’s’ learning. For example, reaching and engaging with local communities, better equipping them to become well-rounded citizens.

Recognize playful learning when navigating complex country contexts

There is no doubt that education reform can be extremely complex, especially in countries experiencing political instability, violence, extreme levels of poverty, and scarce resources.

Traditionally, for example, the Colombian education system did not focus on the development of social and emotional competencies, but rather on content repetition. Policymakers noticed the value of roleplay to help children appreciate different perspectives and play is now actively used as part of the curriculum to aid them in developing holistic skills. It is hoped the promotion of social and emotional skills will be instrumental in reducing high levels of violence in society and so help to build a new generation to guide society in a positive direction.

Similarly, in Peru, policymakers were dealing with an education crisis as, in 2012, it ranked 65th out of 65 countries in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). To improve, they considered how to deepen competency-based learning in schools, facilitating a broader development of children’s capabilities. They focused the curriculum on the ’whole person’, and now children are taught how to self-regulate their emotions, live democratically, and contribute to common good, all while creating a strong personal identity through project-based and playful learning.


Motivations may differ, but the goal of social and emotional skills development remains the same

Globally, policymakers’ motivations for implementing social and emotional skills into their curriculums vary. However, children and society benefit consistently from this.

The value of equipping children with these tools can be seen in South Africa. To galvanise society around common educational ideals, the National Education Coordinating Committee championed what was coined ’people’s education’ and gave voice and content to what this should look like in a post-Apartheid system. This was necessary as people’s self-concepts and self-images had been diminished from decades of systematic discrimination and exploitation. The subject ‘Life Orientation’, implemented as part of the curriculum reform, seeks to enhance positive self-concept and self-image through a topic area called ’Relationship building’. Children are taught to promote a positive relationship with themselves, others, and the wider society. Play is often used in South African schools as a mechanism for teaching these core values.

In South Korea, the motivation for reform was different. The pressure on students to perform academically to get into prestigious universities sacrificed their personal development and involvement in extracurricular activities. Policymakers believed in the transformative power of education; they implemented a series of reforms to transition away from a test-based education system to one focused on educational diversification. They established vocational schools as a viable alternative to university and, as this option became more attractive, the pressure to attend prestigious universities eased. This responded to an economic need for more creativity and diverse skills in the workplace, while also improving child well-being by reducing stress.


All stakeholders should be involved in the design and delivery of systemic reforms

All stakeholders must engage in the reform process for social and emotional skills development. Teachers, especially, must be involved from the start so policymakers can incorporate their experiences and expertise, provide adequate support, and enhance their knowledge of why these skills are important for children. It is also pivotal to engage with parents and caregivers to identify what they think children may want and need from the education system.

In Finland, policymakers were concerned about low levels of motivation and wellbeing in schools. The National Agency of Education was tasked with designing and facilitating the reform. They ensured a range of stakeholders were involved by publishing all feedback received during public consultations on a publicly accessible website. When people understood the purpose of the reform and participated in its formation, there was room for more ownership and acceptance.


Across all six countries included in the report, one thing is clear: children thrive when they are given the tools to develop critical social and emotional skills. The time to act is now, and it must be the responsibility of education systems and key stakeholders globally to provide children with these competencies. It cannot be left to chance or family circumstances. Children are the future, and we must ensure they have the breadth of skills required to deal with complex challenges and uncertainty in an ever-changing world.

Click here to view the full report.

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