Why is play so important to children's development?

There's nothing more natural for children than to play. They manipulate, they explore. Three pebbles thrown in the air, a piece of wood, a string and that's it. From birth, play is a gateway to the world, giving children the keys to interact and better understand their world. It's no coincidence that since 1989, playing has been one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Step by step, play fosters intellectual, social, sensory and motor development and encourages language learning. Later on, it enables children to follow logic and reasoning; it gives them rules and a precise goal, and encourages them to get involved and achieve objectives. Find out how Action Education incorporates play into its field programmes.

The importance of play from birth

From the moment they are born until they are around 3 years old, children need to define themselves and assert their presence in space through sensory play. Variations in sound, colour movements and the diversity of textures enable them to measure their physical abilities, test their limits and understand the influence they can have on their environment. By confronting reality, young children open the first door to their imagination. 

As well as this cognitive and emotional development, play is also a real physical endurance ground for babies, feeding their motor skills, coordination and tone at breakneck speed, and contributing to healthy growth.

What Action Education does

At Action Education, we know that the stimulation and development of very young children, even before they start school, is a key factor in their success at school, which is why we attach such importance to the care they receive in their earliest years. Play is no exception in the environment we create for them. In Vietnam, for example, it plays a central role in the roll-out of our "Promoting Quality and Inclusive Early Childhood Care, Education (ECCE) and Parenting in Vietnam" project, the first phases of which, carried out in 2022, provided 3 nursery schools and 21 satellite schools with edutainment equipment. For example, with a donation of 50 euros, we can provide a set of books and educational games for 20 children. 

Play: the key to independence from 3 to 6 years old

Between the ages of 3 and 6, this is the blessed period of representational play, the realm of transgression through creativity. Play gives children power, because it is their preferred outlet for regulating their emotions. By mimicking and parodying adults, by playing "the bad guys", children can express their joys as well as their fears and resentments. Pretending", at its height, is the ideal way of dealing with situations that the child has never experienced. This is the end of the "all-powerful self" experienced by babies, and the beginning of social competence and empathy.

What Action Education does

Particularly aware of the impact of games at this seminal period, the Action Education teams are constantly seeking to innovate in order to incorporate them into their educational programmes. This is particularly the case in Laos, where the "Learning through play" programme has already been implemented in 30 schools. For our teams, the aim is to respond to a number of issues, including a major obstacle: the children from rural Hmong communities that our teams support do not speak the official language of instruction, Lao. Games are therefore an ideal way of introducing them to this new language. Thanks to the programme, more than 6,000 children have had access to reading games, sports activities, art and science workshops and mobile libraries.

Below, a video of a game song, hosted by one of our employees dedicated to the programme: 

YouTube video

The results speak for themselves:

  • Teachers observed an improvement in vocabulary, as well as increased interest and performance in curriculum-related activities. They have also observed that children are more motivated to learn. Many teachers have also adopted an alternative approach to their practice, seeing play as a new gateway to academic knowledge.
  • Children develop physically, socially and emotionally, and their creativity and language skills improve. They engage with joy and enthusiasm in these activities, and this joy and enthusiasm is then transferred to more traditional school activities, leading to better results. A teacher testifies: "I think this project gives pupils a taste for learning, helps them to read better and include new vocabulary in their sentences". 

From age 7: follow the "rules of the game" and fit in 

As children grow up, the challenge of belonging to a group becomes increasingly crucial. This desire for community is reflected in the growing importance of "rules to follow" in the games they choose. Imitation games are gradually being replaced by games of complete fiction or by board games, where the notion of "community" prevails in the very word "society". Far from restricting the imagination, the rules stimulate children's creativity by requiring them to make conscious, strategic choices to ensure that the outcome of the game is in their favour.

On the ground with Action Education

In India, the Covid 19 pandemic has led to massive school drop-outs. In response to the learning losses caused by the prolonged closure of schools in rural areas of Assam, the Addressing COVID Learning Gaps (ACLG) project is an initiative run by Action Education. This programme aims to help children bridge these learning gaps by organising remedial classes and play activities specially designed for them. For example, the "number game", part of which you can see below, combines fun with learning maths. Pupils have to work out how to reproduce a given number, or a number to be calculated, using sheets of paper on which the numbers 0 to 9 are written.

YouTube video

Adolescence or play as a challenge to be adopted by your contemporaries

For the older children, this need to be a fully-fledged member of a clan is at its height. Tactical games play an increasingly important role in revealing themselves within the group. This is also a time when transgression and the need for a challenge can lead to certain excesses in order to be accepted by one's peers. You test your body against the pain of arm-wrestling, you put your fear aside in jumping or climbing competitions... Flirting with the limits is part of the initiation rites of this singular age. It is also a time of great vulnerability, which can give rise to oppressive, angry, violent or harassing behaviour towards those perceived as "outside the group". 

On the ground with Action Education

In response to these delicate situations, Action Education develops artistic and theatrical programmes for young people, in which acting plays a key role. This is the case in France with the forum theatre sessions and in Bulgaria with the Power project. 

  • In France, "Forum Theatre" is a way of getting people together to talk about and come up with solutions to the problems faced by teenagers. It's an interactive theatre technique that encourages debate and suggests ways of overcoming deadlocked situations. This form of theatre, developed in Brazil during the years of dictatorship, has been popularised in France under the name of "theatre of the oppressed". Performed by a troupe of actors, it invites the audience to immerse themselves in a tense situation in which the various characters have no way out, by watching a short sketch. Then, during a second performance of the same sketch, the audience is invited to suggest ways of reducing the tension and deadlock by taking the place of the character they have chosen.

Through sketches based on real-life situations, sometimes involving those who have experienced them, we help the audience to become more aware of the role they can play and to understand the dynamics of such situations.

YouTube video
  • In Bulgaria, Action Education has joined forces with Médecins du Monde Bulgaria to develop the Power project, aimed at empowering the residents of Nadejda, a marginalised district of Sliven in Bulgaria, surrounded by walls and barbed wire and linked to the rest of the town by a tunnel running under the railway line. The idea of painting the tunnel, in collaboration with the Visionary Foundation and various artists, arose from the need to change the way the rest of the population saw the Nadejda district.

Workshop meetings were therefore organised with young people from the Nadejda district, so that the artists could draw inspiration from them, borrow stories from their daily lives and their dreams, and start work on the frescoes. 

"We had a meeting with children of different ages, and what struck me was that they were a bit like a blank canvas and hadn't really grasped the notion of dreaming. When I asked them what they were dreaming about, they didn't know. I've also worked with other children, and the answer was always "I dream of being an astronaut", "I dream of having a house", "I dream of having a home", "I dream of driving a car". And what I wanted to do was to leave them something to encourage them to dream and develop their imagination, to build a child's world populated by characters, so that they could have their own space of freedom".



Much more than just a window on young people's imaginations, art and play are powerful, if not the only, outlet for expressing their trauma and building resilience.

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