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How parents are supporting children’s learning and development with play

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A little boy no older than five sits cross-legged on a woven grass mat on the concrete floor of a classroom in Uganda. His name is Joseph and in front of him are round, brightly coloured toy cups. Each one is numbered on the bottom and slightly different in size—just enough that it takes some counting and comparison skills to successfully sort them from biggest to smallest. In the correct order, the cups can either be neatly nested one inside the other or stacked high in a tapered tower.

With his tongue stuck out in concentration, Joseph piles the shapes up instead of in. With the largest as his base, he begins to stack the purple cup, then the blue cup, and then the red. The yellow cup looks just about right, but wait! When he tries to add it on top, it’s a little too narrow.

What about green? He practices his counting, examines the containers’ relative sizes, and tries again.

“You’re trying each different colour,” says a woman sitting next to him on the floor. “You are checking which one fits.”

Sure enough, green then yellow then dark blue. The tower grows until the boy has to stretch his arm up high to add a layer of orange on top.

“You know exactly which one goes next,” the woman says, encouragingly. “You’re building that so tall!”

As he stacks the last cup on top, completing the colourful creation, Joseph looks brightly at Amari, satisfaction on his face.

“You worked so hard on that,” she says with a congratulatory clap.

The exchange is natural, but Amari’s words are chosen carefully. She is a Parent Educator with Right To Play’s new Play to Grow Parenting program, leading a training session for parents in her community—parents like Joseph’s mother, who sits across the mat, observing how Amari interacts with her son.

Currently being piloted in seven refugee and urban communities in Uganda and Tanzania, Play to Grow works with parents and caregivers of children aged three to six, empowering them with strategies and support to foster their children’s social and emotional skills and early literacy and numeracy through play. A parent equipped to respond to early developmental and educational needs can strengthen the foundation of their children’s future learning and growth.

ENGAGED PARENTS SET CHILDREN UP FOR SUCCESS

Adults occupy an indisputably important role in a child’s life. The closeness of a child’s relationship with adults in their early years can be a key driver to their learning and development. For example, studies show that teacher-child closeness in kindergarten can predict a child’s behaviour, social-emotional development, and academic success. The nature of the attention a child receives from their mom or dad can fundamentally shape how they learn and experience the world around them. In a country such as Uganda, where only 10% of children between three and five years old are enrolled in formal pre-primary education, parents also play a critical role in preparing them for the transition to school.

“Through play, parents have an opportunity to learn more about their children and their hobbies. This helps parents to get closer to their children.” - Joel Karagwe, Primary School Teacher and Parent Educator, Play to Grow


LOCAL LEADERS HELPING PARENTS THRIVE

As a Parent Educator, Amari is an important part of how Right To Play supports the development of key parenting skills. She is one of more than 200 individuals that Right To Play is training in Uganda and Tanzania to deliver the Play to Grow program. Like Amari, who is a primary school teacher, all Parent Educators are trusted community members who already have regular contact with local families (e.g., teachers and health workers). Amari has been trained by Right To Play to deliver Play to Grow in her community.

Over six months, she will deliver 12 bi-weekly sessions to local parents, centered on learning and practicing nine key parenting skills to support social-emotional development and early literacy and numeracy in children. On alternate weeks, Amari also facilitates Parent Support Group sessions, convening program participants in safe, non-judgemental spaces where they can discuss their individual experiences and lean on one another for support. As a Parent Educator, she also carries out monthly Home Visits to support parents by observing and coaching their skills in-action with their kids.

Over the course of the 24-week program, Amari’s hard work is complemented by weekly radio programming, which encourages parents in their learning and growth. Episodes are designed to reinforce the lessons parents learn during sessions with Parent Educators. They cover topics such as managing conflict, learning numeracy through play, and building self-esteem in both children and parents. Because not everyone has access to TV or the Internet where Play to Grow is active, radio broadcast ensures as many parents as possible can tune in.

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A group of Parent Educators engage in a training session, where they learn strategies to support the development of key parenting skills.

SHAPING SKILLS AND BUILDING BONDS

Through Play to Grow, parents learn about more than their children’s social-emotional and educational developmental needs, they learn skills and strategies to address those needs themselves. Right To Play drew heavily on a clinical program developed by the University of Texas and its own play-based methodology and expertise to shape Play to Grow. Local family counselling experts then helped to adapt it for East Africa. Bringing together the science of early childhood brain development, play therapy, child-parent attachment principles, and interpersonal neurobiology, Play to Grow is unique in the way it promotes stronger child-parent relationships.

As she watched Joseph play, Amari’s response to his actions was an active demonstration of how responsive parenting can deepen bonds.

When she sat down on the mat, Amari didn’t try to dive right into a “game” with Joseph. She didn’t suggest how he should use the colourful cups or try to teach him a lesson. Instead, she let him take the lead and focused on narrating his actions (“You’re trying each different colour”) so he could feel her care and attention. She used positive language to give Joseph credit for his accomplishments and to boost his self-esteem (“You know exactly which one goes next”). When he placed the last piece on the top of his tower, she encouraged his effort (“You worked so hard on that”), rather than saying “good boy,” or simply praising him for finishing the task.

“What we have learned will improve our community and enhance the relationship between children and their parents.” - Rosette Owamahoro, Primary school teacher & parent, Uganda

When parent educators like Amari share these strategies with parents, the impact is enormous. Parents learn how to integrate literacy and numeracy skills into everyday activities to help their children learn fundamental skills that improve school readiness. When they implement skills aimed at improving behaviour, parents themselves demonstrate positive ways to behave. For example, when mom or dad calmly respond to a child’s anger instead of reacting to it with the same emotion, they help the child calm down.

Parents’ behaviours have already begun to change as a result of learning these strategies. In Tanzania, parents who answered yes to the statement, “I have to use strong words or yell at my child to get them to behave,” has gone from 45% (Tanzania) at the start of the program, to 0%. A critical impact, as harsh discipline and corporal punishment are prevalent in Play to Grow communities.

Calmer, more playful households are also less stressful households—which can be especially important for families in humanitarian settings. In Uganda, where Play to Grow is supporting refugee population in Adjumani and Isingiro, program resources have been translated into multiple languages to reach as many families as possible, regardless of where they come from.

Monica Millinga, a Field Facilitator in Tanzania, shares the feedback she has received from parents who have participated in the Play to Grow program.


PARENTS SUPPORTING EACH OTHER TO BETTER SUPPORT THEIR KIDS

Play to Grow supports children’s psychosocial wellbeing, but it’s also an important psychosocial support for parents. During a Parent Support Group session, Amari facilitates a warm and accepting space where parents and caregivers can support each other. In week four of the program, she facilitates a conversation about family safety. Parents are encouraged to talk about how they keep their kids safe, but also how they protect and care for themselves. During 10 minutes of the session, Amari leads an activity to promote self-compassion. She invites parents, to close their eyes, take a deep breath and think about the emotions they are feeling. How do their bodies feel? Is there any discomfort? Where?

To end the activity, Amari asks the parents to place a hand over their hearts and inhale deeply.

“Intentionally bring relaxation and kindness to yourself,” she says. “Tell yourself, ‘May I be gentle and understanding with myself.’”

Just as they are learning to be with their children through responsive parenting and play.


The Play to Grow pilot is being implemented with the support of:

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