Children spend much of their early years learning about the world. They practice walking, talking and socialising with others, continuously observing their surroundings and trying to make sense of everything they experience. There are many ways in which children learn about their environments, but arguably the most effective is play.
Through play, children develop important cognitive, socio-emotional and physical skills. They use their imagination and creativity, interact and communicate with others and exercise their fine and gross motor skills, all while having fun. Importantly, children also draw on past experience when playing to invent games or play out scenarios, so they constantly reflect on what they have seen, done, watched or heard. Exploration, discovery and play are, therefore, critical parts of a child’s early development.
If you are a parent or caregiver to young children, give your children time to play independently, in peer groups and with you or other adults. When playing with your child, allow them to take the lead and go along with their ideas. You can also play games (e.g., board games, hide and seek) or use puppets or props to act out real-life situations that will teach your child how to problem solve. Making or listening to music together, doing arts and crafts or watching and discussing a movie are also good ways to spend quality time with your child. Try to gently guide play activities to enhance learning.
Parents, caregivers and teachers can do the following to help children get the most out of play:
• Provide opportunities for play indoors and outdoors by creating child-friendly spaces in the home, classroom, compound and neighbourhood, where a parent or adult can supervise children at all times. Play areas should be open, comfortable and clean and include space for storing toys and books. If possible, put pictures or posters on the walls for visual stimulation
• Have your children help you collect locally available materials that can be used for counting, stacking, sorting or crafts, or to create no or low-cost toys (e.g., fill an empty can or water bottle with small stones and paint it a bright colour to make an instrument, or collect and paint small sticks, dried maize husks or soda bottle caps for use in games)
• Play games with your children. Focus on games that help them learn sounds, words and spatial awareness if they are less than one-year-old, and games that involve pretending, counting and hiding/seeking if they are between one and three-years-old. Observe children carefully as they play to identify any obstacles and enhance learning and the overall experience for all children
• Ensure that toys and books are age-appropriate, safe (e.g., no small parts that a young child could swallow or choke on), and gender-responsive (e.g., illustrations that show girls and boys in non-traditional roles)
• Give children 30-60 minute blocks of time to play, to allow enough time for in-depth scenarios and dramatisations and for everyone to have a chance to participate
In addition to making sure that children are playing, parents can support children by reading with them on a regular basis, helping them with homework and asking questions about what they have seen, done or read to stimulate reflection and comprehension. Spending just 20 minutes each day reading with your child will have a long-lasting impact on their intelligence, imagination and language development.
For parents or caregivers who are very busy, the idea of setting aside time each day to read or play with your child can seem impossible. But you don’t have to do it alone — consider forming a reading group with other parents in your community, and take turns reading to your children. For example, five families could form a group where one parent reads to all the children on Monday, another reads on Tuesday, and so on, so that children get to read with an adult every day.
Ensuring your young girls and boys attend a quality early childhood development (ECD) centre will help them get the best possible start in life. Across Uganda, teachers and caregivers are creating resource-rich environments where young children can learn through play, laying the foundation for them to develop into happy and healthy adults. This effort is part of the Aga Khan Foundation’s Madrasa Early Childhood Programme (MECP), in which ECD centres are giving children of all faiths aged 3-6 time and materials to play to boost their cognitive development. MECP has benefitted more than 20,000 children since its launch in Uganda in 1993, by establishing 90 ECD centres and supporting 63 existing pre-primary schools.
MECP’s mission is to promote affordable, community-based, culturally relevant and pluralistic high-quality early childhood development services. It emphasises holistic childhood development, teaching children about nutrition, sanitation and environmental sustainability alongside reading and math. And MECP ECD centres promote daily play by providing children with brightly coloured toys and resources, handmade by teachers from local and recycled materials.
In its early years, MECP worked solely with existing schools to train local teachers and provide them with professional development and mentorship. In 2015, however, the programme finally opened its own early childhood development training centre: the Madrasa Early Childhood Development Institute (MECDI), which operates in Mengo, Kampala. It has already graduated over 300 ECD teachers, who are spread throughout the country and working hard to equip children with the lessons and skills they need to become competent and contributing individuals.
It doesn’t take much to create a rich learning environment for a child, but a handful of interesting toys and daily time to play can give a girl or boy a strong start in life. Every child deserves the chance to succeed — let’s make sure we give it to them.
Ms Topan is a Communications Fellow, West Nile Area Office Aga Khan foundation (Uganda)