Learning Through Play: Increasing Impact, Reducing Inequality

written by: Amy Jo Dowd and Bo Stjerne Thomsen


Play as a solution to inequality

Inequality in learning is an urgent global issue. It severely affects individual children’s life chances, and economies’ and societies’ development. The LEGO Foundation has reviewed evidence of the power of learning through play to tackle inequality and improve the outcomes of children.


A crisis in children’s learning requires playful experiences

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s learning was in crisis, where 8 out of 10 children in low-income countries did not have access to pre-primary education, and children from more disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to miss out of the benefits. The pandemic has only sharpened these inequities, hitting children in poorer countries particularly hard, and making it clear that we need to reimagine what early education can and should be.

The new report from the LEGO Foundation draws on evidence from 26 studies of early childhood learning programmes, carried out in 18 locations around the globe, as well as interviews with the authors of these studies. These data suggest that learning through play represents the best long-term value for helping children, regardless of background.


International organisations do not recognize play

In recent years, the benefits of learning through play, especially for early brain development and the role of adults in nurturing this, have been increasingly recognised.

But Even so, many international organisations still do not recognise play. Play is absent from most statements of education quality, as well as from reviews of the impact of early childhood programmes published by economists and developmental psychologists alike.

The new report Learning through play: increasing impact, reducing inequality, demonstrates that policymakers and international organisations need to start taking play seriously. Play helps children learn, supports inclusion and reduces inequality.

Learning through play can close achievement gaps between children aged 3-6 years, from more and less advantaged groups, helping all children in pre-school develop the breadth of skills they will need throughout their lives.


Learning through play is the most effective long-term strategy

Many pre-school education programmes target children from disadvantaged groups, focusing only on academic outcomes in early childhood, with the aim of teaching young children the basic academic skills of school readiness.

A greater focus on learning through play in early childhood could be an effective strategy for closing achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged counterparts.

Studies from around the world show that rather than a focus on instructing children in the early years, facilitating free and guided play helps children develop the breadth of skills they need. Not just reading, writing and math, but also self-control, socio-emotional development, attentional regulation and nurturing a joy in education.


Recognising play as a solution forward

Learning through play enables children to make their own choices, it allows them actively to test out ideas, and gives them greater enjoyment.

When children are engaged in play, they experience lower levels of exclusion. Interventions which include teacher training and follow-up, a greater engagement of parents in recognizing the benefits of play as well as the use of a wider range of materials and activities, are shown to close achievement gaps between students from advantaged and disadvantaged groups.

Inequality starts to show itself early in education. We have failed to recognize one of the most obvious solutions to inequality and learning gaps, and we need to recognize play as a solution to narrow these gaps through a joyful approach to education.