In Bangladesh, kids are singing and dancing to help them learn

'Play Labs' is spreading a play-based learning model across low-income countries

At hundreds of preschools in poor neighbourhoods in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda, something unusual is going on. Unlike scenes more common in these countries — where young children often sit before a teacher and obediently repeat lessons — children at the new preschools are encouraged to play.

Local adolescent girls and young women, trained as “play leaders”, lead the children in singing or rhyming to develop speech and vocabulary, in dancing and games to develop gross motor skills, and in drawing and other art work to develop fine motor skills.

Welcome to Play Labs, an early childhood education approach pioneered over the last few years by BRAC, a large Bangladeshi NGO. A 2017 pilot study of 60 children, aged 3 to 5, found that the half that had spent one year in Play Labs showed significantly higher fine motor and problem-solving skills compared to the half that had not.

Constructive play

The over 800 Play Labs in operation are notable for providing an alternative to the rote learning approach more common in low-income countries. “Low resource settings does not mean we don’t have rich conceptualisation of children’s education and development,” said Erum Mariam, director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which developed and runs the preschools.

In the mid-1990s, the organisation, founded in 1972, began building a large network of preschools in Bangladesh for children from age 5.

A decade later, Mariam and her colleagues tried introducing more play time, but concluded that was not leading to the desired results. “We thought that just by having children being active they would be learning, but we hadn’t sorted out the learning part.”

In stepped the Lego Foundation. In 2016 Lego announced a $7.1 million donation over five years to develop ways to channel play to promote measurable early childhood development. That support has gone to open 240 Play Lab preschools, 80 each in Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda. Following the one-year, small-scale study in 2017, a larger and more comprehensive evaluation is due in 2020.

David Whitebread, one of two western academics advising the Play Labs project, devised and supervises the collection and analysis of data to ensure the project’s design is evidence-based. “A lot of international philanthropic organisations are funding education-development programs, but there is very little evidence of their effectiveness,” he said.

BRAC has also opened hundreds of Play Lab preschools for Rohingya refugees on Bangladesh’s eastern border with a $100 million donation announced by the Lego Foundation last December for both Rohingya and Syria refugee children.

Play leaders

Each Play Lab class is limited to 30 children, age 3 to 5, and is led by a play leader, often assisted by one or several parent-volunteers.

The model’s play-based curriculum depends on these play leaders. These young women and girls receive only a week’s instruction before starting in their paid jobs, but get a further one day of in-service training each month as part of efforts to promote a “community of learning.”

If it proves successful in the longer term, this model suggests that ECE staffing of adequate quality can be created at low cost by using a labor supply — young women and girls — that is largely untapped, or at least widely available, in many countries.

“The relationship between the play leader and the children — the nurturing environment and her playfulness — is what makes everything happen,” said Mariam. Various guided play activities focus on the children’s socio-emotional development. Games in small and large groups teach sharing, taking turns, self-regulation, and leadership.

Each lab has several corners including colour world (painting and drawing), story world (story books) and dream world (unguided, free play). Most Play Labs, even in urban settings, have a playground with sand, plants, water and installations like swings, climbing ladders and slides, all built by community volunteers.

The curriculum is intended to promote language and motor skills, cognitive growth and socialisation. “It requires thinking through how the different activities in the curriculum each lead to the desired outcomes,” said Mariam.

Whitebread, the academic advisor, said the program is “quite structured, with a timetable for the day, and we know from previous work that this approach is very effective with children from disadvantaged areas and very good for young, inexperienced [teachers].”

Spreading ideas

Play Lab officials say curriculum design differs from country to country, depending on specifics of the local culture. In Bangladesh, drama and poetry are an important part. In east Africa, music and dance play a bigger role.

The multidisciplinary team overseeing the Play Lab network includes, in addition to educators and psychologists, a dozen architects. They help make the preschool premises child-friendly, for example, by lowering windows, where possible, to allow small children to look out.

Community engagement is an important part of the model. Preschoolers, their parents and siblings are invited to decorate the Play Labs. Every three months parents are asked to come for one day to make play materials, like clay dolls, stuffed animals, and decorations from recycled soda bottles, wrappers, etc. In east Africa, parents fashion dolls out of banana fibre.

Worried parents sometimes complain that their children play rather than learn numbers and reading. But Play Lab officials say their innovative approach has not met with resistance from conservatives or government regulators. In fact, this year Bangladesh’s Ministry of Primary and Mass Education agreed to have BRAC open a further 250 Play Labs at public elementary schools, following a first batch of 50 last year. “These 300 are showcasing what play-based early childhood learning means, and how this philosophy of being playful strengthens interactions of child with adult and child with child,” said Mariam. In 2010, the government declared that all 5 year olds should have access to preschools. Now, according to Mariam, authorities are giving serious thought to lowering the starting age to 4 years.

With the favourable reception Play Labs have had so far, Mariam hopes the authorities will move toward adopting their approach, perhaps with technical support from BRAC, at all of the many thousands of public preschools in operation and being opened.

“We believe it’s the start of a bigger movement.” — Burton Bollag

(Picture Credit: Flickr/Mahmud Rassel)

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