Whether we are living under pandemic conditions or not, we must always be wary of the danger of ‘play poverty’ (also known as ‘low-play lives’). There is a growing awareness in the world that environments not rich in play-based learning or playful experiences, can lead to a ‘play gap’. This, in turn, leads to gaps in a child’s learning. Ultimately a play gap can result in a skills gap leading to potential unemployment. The bedfellow to unemployment is crime, something I am all too familiar with, having lost my husband in a home invasion for a few computers and cell phones.

Coronavirus and play poverty

In a world now in various stages of lockdown and re-phasing in, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we need to be more aware than ever of the link between play poverty and a future skills gap. Due to COVID-19, schools and early childhood development centres have been shut down. A recent report published by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in April 2020 warns that many of these 30 000 ECD centres are unlikely to ever open again. This is a crisis!

Currently, orphanages cannot receive visitors who provide regular stimulation for vulnerable children and all South Africa’s children, in general, are unable to play outdoors and socialise normally with each other.

This issue has both immediate social and emotional impact as well as a generational impact. We cannot afford yet another lost generation and need to do everything we can to ensure continued stimulation and play for our nation’s children.

The language of play

To stimulate their rampant creativity, curious nature and natural desire to learn and discover, children need rich environments to explore, caring adults to hold the space for them, and toys, games, books and resources to help them to tap into their innate brilliance.

Play is a language of its own and it’s also a child’s natural way of dealing with stress and anxiety. They can play out their emotions and express themselves when they don’t yet have the words to express how they are feeling. During COVID-19 this is more essential now than ever as children are struggling with increased fear and anxiety.

It’s time for the whole of society to wake up to the sheer power and importance of play in a child’s early development. Most people don’t connect the dots between low-play lives and the skills gap it creates in later life, impacting on numeracy, literacy and overall employability. The neuroscience behind the connection is becoming so clear that ‘play poverty’ is a term that recently found its way into the World Economic Forum.

Why we miss the connection between learning and play

Learning through play is deceptive in that it is not always as obvious as it might be in a formal learning environment. We have a very narrow view of learning, thinking that it only happens between the covers of books, on a digital screen or within the four walls of a classroom in a school.

Play, however, is a multisensory experience that often takes place in three dimensions. The early childhood years, from birth to age 9, should be characterised mostly by real, concrete learning experiences in which children engage their whole selves;  mind and body. Play is thinking made real or visible. Children put their own thoughts and ideas to the test when they play. They thrive on making things happen, on testing their natural curiosity through discovery rather than having knowledge drummed into their heads in a formal way. Play is about children putting their own thoughts into action in a multitude of different ways.

Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.

(Albert Einstein)

The link between school readiness and play

Think of a child’s development much like a brick wall. If there are bricks missing in the foundations, the likelihood is that the wall will, at some point, wobble and fall down. We see this time and time again as children are pushed through the education system without the consolidation of their basic numeracy and literacy skills. We then wonder why school is so difficult for them, why so many drop out by in grade 10, and why our matric results are so dismal.

The many perceptual skills required for school readiness are developed through exploration and stimulation.  This means all the basic building blocks a child will need to develop the foundations for reading, writing, spelling and mathematics (numeracy and literacy) can be developed through play. In other words, the neural wiring can be put in place long before a child learns formally how to read and write in primary school. This can be done in the low-stress environment of play and discovery, engendering a love of learning.

In addition, children acquire language through play and social interaction with their parents and other adults and children. With language and strong numeracy and literacy foundations, children can enter the formal learning environment of primary school ready for the rigor of abstract academic learning.

Parents need to be educated and equipped about their role in helping their children to learn through play. Early learning and play-based preschool education should be available to all of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens to ensure that strong foundations are laid in the early years.

The planned return to school

During the Corona Virus pandemic, we also need to take a long hard look at why our youngest children are going to be the last to go back to school. They are the least at risk of contracting or of spreading the virus. See the Policy Brief: Who should go back to school first? from Professor Nic Spaull from the University of Stellenbosch. These youngsters are missing out on essential stimulation for their development while the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Social Development pass the ECD ball like a hot potato between them. Let’s not forget how many of these children from our poorest and most vulnerable communities are also missing out on what is possibly their most nutritious meal, or their only meal of the day at these centres.

Let’s value and honour play

As a nation, let’s ensure that our preschool and foundation phase learners have the resources – toys, games, books and rich learning and playing environments to stimulate them. Let’s commit to an understanding of the importance of play and our role in helping children to learn through play, whether we are parents, educators or concerned members of the community. We all have a role to play in raising, caring for, and protecting the next generation of employable citizens.

There is no world in which no play is okay. Let’s value and honour play. Let’s protect and invest in the youngest members of society, both the fortunate as well as the vulnerable children and orphans. Better matric results start with ensuring that the children who enter the school system are school-ready, and this starts with play. Let no child be left behind because we didn’t care enough to ensure they played enough.

I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on this generational issue that impacts us all both today and in the future. I say it again: there is no world in which no play is okay.


Human Potential & Parenting Expert helping you  win @ work and life

Listen to my podcast with Robyn Wienand

Full report The Plight of the ECD Workforce, published in April 2020 by Nelson Mandela Foundation, South African Congress for Early Childhood Development, National ECD Alliance, Ilifa Labantwana, BRIDGE, and SmartStart. Download report here.

About the organisations:

  • Ilifa Labantwana
  • National ECD Alliance (NECDA) [103 member organisations including Preschools 4 Africa]
  • Nelson Mandela Foundation
  • Smartstart [4 000 member operators]
  • South African Congress for Early Childhood Development (SACECD) [21 000 ECD Centres]