Combatting a poverty of play: revisiting the global landscape of post-pandemic play and learning

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Famed developmental psychologist and English paediatrician Donald Winnicott said, “there is, for many, a poverty of play” (Playing and Reality, 1971). Despite play’s status in developmental literature as being key to both learning and wellbeing, Winnicott’s observation has come to characterise the landscape of childhood in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN has noted that the pandemic “created the largest disruption of education systems in history” across as many as 190 countries. A groundswell of emergent evidence has highlighted the significant realities of learning loss across the globe, which still persist (Betthauser et al., 2023). Meanwhile, there have been knock-on effects on children’s mental health (see Leeb et al., 2020 and Blackwell et al., 2022). In the face of these extremely challenging circumstances, play has the potential to offer a strong mechanism for helping children transition to post-Covid societies – what Casey and McKendrick (2022) referred to as a narrative of play as a “remedy to crisis”. The evidence on play’s role in children’s outcomes is clear: play enhances learning and development, fosters key cognitive and socioemotional skills, gives children opportunities for autonomy, and offers protective mechanisms such as stress regulation (Whitebread, 2019 and Yogman et al., 2018).

On March 3, 2022, the Global Symposium on Post-Pandemic Play (GSPPP) was virtually convened by a steering group of 11 international academics to champion a play-forward approach in post-Covid work with communities and children around the world. Participants from over 50 countries as far apart as Mexico and Malawi assembled to discuss both obstacles and opportunities in foregrounding play in work and research with families, schools and communities. Twelve leaders in research and practice were also invited to share salient lessons from their efforts to incorporate play into programming and research both during and post-Covid in geographies such as Bangladesh, the US, and Australia. The dynamism and ideation energised the group to continue to bring play-forward approaches to their arenas of work.

Now, one year on, there is an opportunity to reflect on what has changed and where we are at the present moment. Two of our original speakers – Dr Erum Mariam, executive director of BRAC Institute of Educational Development (IED), BRAC University, in Bangladesh, and Madeeha Ansari, CEO and Founder of Cities for Children – shared updates on their work and perspectives on the status of play’s adoption as a post-Covid tool for returning to learning.

On the battle for buy-in

At the original GSPPP, more than 100 attendees from research and practice who attended the conference concurred that culturally anchored viewpoints on play had made it challenging to integrate play into programmes designed to help children transition through and beyond Covid. Though experiences varied from country to country, a commonality was found in play’s second-string status in the eyes of many teachers, administrators and parents. One year on, this challenge remains. Ansari noted, “in the context of Pakistan, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of creating awareness around the importance of play in children’s development.” This highlights that despite the vital work being done by NGOs like Cities for Children and BRAC’s PlayLabs, which both bring a ‘play-forward’ approach to education programming, varying cultural viewpoints around play still hamper widespread adoption. These programmes, and many other play-focused endeavours, are incredibly successful – but they still have to convince communities that play is worthwhile. Referring back to Casey and McKendrick’s recent paper, the problem is that play, conceptualised as a child’s right, is still not foregrounded nor incorporated as an “everyday” aspect of children’s lives and learning (2022).

Yet Mariam emphasised that success has been found in “advocating the idea that play and socio-emotional development are intertwined.” Focusing on these together has given play widespread appeal, and as this philosophy has been rolled out by BRAC’s IED across content design and training, it is reaching more and more key frontline stakeholders responsible for children’s learning and wellbeing. Ansari suggested that further buy-in with adult stakeholders such as parents could be fostered through the creation and sharing of easily accessible, digitally formatted and socially shared content on the benefits of play for learning.

On play as an effective pedagogy

When the GSPPP was convened in 2022, a large focus of the conversation was on play’s potential in early childhood learning recovery. In the year since, however, important work has been done to expand play’s status as an ‘ECD-only’ pedagogy. Mariam and her institution have expanded play into public primary schools by building the capacity of teachers and communities through a series of workshops, helping them learn how to create more playful and stimulating environments for children. BRAC’s IED have also designed a play-based childcare model focused on women engaged in Bangladesh’s labour force, like garment factory workers. Here, play is being adopted as the pedagogy of choice for children of these families, operationalised through the training of women in the community on playful learning to formalise and systematise the currently informal childcare sector. This embraces the idea that playful learning “creates multigenerational opportunities” which have transformational potential for whole communities.

Meanwhile, Cities for Children has been exploring how to incorporate playful learning into the teaching of scientific concepts in informal spaces post-Covid. Their Partners in Learning programme draws on a child-to-child model which equips older children to deliver fun early learning sessions to younger kids, which has proved an extremely motivating opportunity for children to learn together.

On compounding crises

The original issue for which the GSPPP was convened was the impact of Covid-19 on childhoods. But evidence showed that Covid exacerbated inequalities which already existed (see here), including unequal learning outcomes. This highlights Covid’s status as a ‘compounder’ – and suggests that other such compounders will continue to present challenges to childhoods. Indeed, compound crises and learning disruptions have since abounded in many parts of the world: natural disasters, conflict, changes in government. As these have arisen, lessons learned from play’s potential to aid children’s post-Covid recovery can be applied more widely. Ansari shared how Cities for Children has also been supporting Temporary Learning Centres for children affected by the floods in Pakistan whose learning has been severely disrupted, as during the pandemic. These centres offer safe spaces for children to learn and play, in the absence of any other services. She notes that “play has been an important part of helping children to recover and to cope with very difficult circumstances.”

On hope beyond Covid’s shadow

Bringing some of these ideas together, there is agreement that play still offers immense opportunity for children – both during, and in the wake of, all kinds of crises. Whilst Covid was global in its impact and has proved far-reaching in its effects on children’s learning, wellbeing, and other important outcomes, other more localised crises have necessitated the furthering of what has been trialled, adapted, and learned by organisations and researchers in education and contingent fields.

Parent, teacher, and community buy-in is essential. To foster this, educational content on play – and ideas on how to do it successfully with all kinds of resources – could be created digitally and shared socially or through nationally available media. Value could be added by emphasising that play, socioemotional development, and cognitive development are interlinked. For communities where the informal childcare sector is run by caregivers, training on play-based childcare models has been, and can continue to be, a strong option for bringing more play to care settings. Where there are teacher training opportunities, workshops or other professional development learning that equips teachers beyond the nursery years to utilise play in their teaching could help to further the play-for-learning agenda. Informally, children learning together, and from each other, presents a natural opportunity to bring play into the mix.

These innovations and ideas around programme and content delivery shared by Ansari and Mariam are child-centred and play-forward and have received overwhelmingly positive responses. By continuing the conversation here and elsewhere about how play can serve children best as they collectively recover from Covid’s impact, and the new impacts of other crises, it is possible to continue to build the groundswell of support needed to help redress the learning loss and other undesirable effects abounding in both new evidence and new media.

You can watch the full-length Global Symposium on Post-Pandemic Play below.

Global Symposium on Post-Pandemic Play

The Global Symposium on Post-Pandemic Play was funded through a network grant from BAICE, originally granted in 2021. The GSPPP has since been an ongoing project which has seen the delivery of two global symposia hosted virtually by the University of Cambridge and supported by Cambridge’s PEDAL Centre and REAL Centre, University College London’s Centre for Education and International Development, the University of Wollongong’s Early Start unit, and BRAC University’s Institute of Educational Development. It has also incorporated academic writing, writing for audiences in education and community work, and the building of a wider network of pro-play practitioners.

Sabilah Eboo Alwani, Founder of Global Symposium on Post-Pandemic Play


  • Sabilah Eboo Alwani

    Sabilah is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. Having held senior roles in education technology and publishing, her research now focuses on early childhood learning and development, and the effect of parent engagement on childhood during the Covid-19 crisis. She is particularly interested in exploring how parent–child play and healthy development are affected by the mediator of parental resilience. Sabilah’s work is associated with Cambridge’s REAL and PEDAL research centres. She also spearheads a team of 12 international scholars on the Post-Pandemic Play initiative, for which she holds a grant from BAICE. She is an associate director of the COVGEN Alliance, and a designated Google research innovator. She completed her MPhil in education and international development at Cambridge, and holds dual BAs from Columbia University in the USA.

BAICE is a charity, registered in the UK. The BAICE Media Hub supports BAICE's charitable objective of stimulating and disseminating knowledge and research in the field of international and comparative education. Views expressed in outputs hosted on the BAICE Media Hub are those of the contributors. They do not necessarily represent the views of the BAICE Executive Committee or the wider BAICE membership.