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How to Unlock the Power of Play for Children in Crisis

Photos: Courtesy of Sesame Workshop / Ryan Donnell
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Sherrie Westin

Growing children need to play. It’s one of the most important ways they learn. In the first five years of life, young brains develop at their most rapid pace — and research shows that infants and children are constantly learning, connecting, and engaging with their surroundings through positive playful experiences.

Playful learning boosts children’s cognitive, physical, and social-emotional growth — it’s a developmental dynamo. And it doesn’t need to be costly or require manufactured games or toys; through guided activities, like building with found objects and role-playing, children learn how to be good communicators, grow their imaginations, and develop empathy, laying the foundation for them to become lifelong learners.

What they need most

For refugee children, playful learning can be especially transformative. Play fosters a child’s natural curiosity to learn through engaging interactions with grownups, and research shows that same adult-child engagement — “nurturing care” — is what children who have experienced the trauma of war and displacement need most. Leading experts in child development believe that play holds the potential to help displaced children and their parents and caregivers cope with instability.

And yet from Syria to Bangladesh, displaced children often lack access to playful learning opportunities and quality early education. In fact, less than 3 percent of global humanitarian aid goes to education, and just a fraction of that goes to the youngest children.

Parents and caregivers, often under tremendous stress themselves, need support and access to strategies for meaningful, playful interactions with their children. Play is central to childhood around the world. And yet, adults often don’t realize its potential, instead viewing play and learning as separate aspects of childhood, when in fact playful experiences guided by a caregiver support children’s learning across a range of outcomes.

Potential of play

Luckily, there is growing recognition of the power of learning through play and its potential to help children in crisis. Last year the LEGO Foundation — a longtime partner of Sesame Workshop’s — pledged $100 million to harness the power of learning through play for children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian refugee crises. Their award builds on a landmark $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to support early learning for children affected by the conflict in Syria.

We hope these audacious investments will inspire others to come forward to establish early education and play-based learning as an essential component of humanitarian response. Given that half of the world’s 70 million displaced people are children, we have a collective responsibility to give them the skills they need to thrive into adulthood and one day rebuild their communities. By harnessing the power of play, we can forge a legacy for children worldwide affected by conflict — today and for generations to come.

Sherrie Westin, President of Social Impact and Philanthropy, Sesame Workshop, [email protected]

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