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The Power of Play: Promoting Child Development with a Breakthrough Concept


Children play with the same type of playground materials being sent to post-conflict or crisis areas.

Play has a critical role in healthy brain development, building physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths that serve children throughout their lives. Its importance in development is considered by the United Nations to be the right of every child, and is an essential part of UNICEF’s global programming for children. Experts see the importance of play as especially critical for children who have witnessed trauma, violence and deprivation.

Recently, UNICEF with support from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Disney became partners in UNICEF@Play  an innovative play and recreation project that brings opportunities for play to extremely vulnerable children.  Mobile playground units consisting of giant foam blocks, empower children ages 3 to 12 to influence the space around them and design their own course of play, and encourage them to dream and create through dramatic, constructive, and gross motor play.

Child development specialist Cassie Landers, EdD, MPH, helped promote the project and the idea of portable playgrounds to UNICEF two years ago when she saw its potential  for children growing up in crisis and post-conflict areas and in places where opportunities for education and play are limited. Designed in New York by the architectural firm, The Rockwell Group, the Imagination Playgrounds have been deployed to Haiti and Bangladesh, where they are being tested for their potential to become a part of UNICEF’s standard response to help children and communities recover from crisis. Building on UNICEF’s strong networks and experience working with governments and communities, the UN agency is partnering with NGOs who are responsible for on-the-ground-training and overall project supervision.

UNICEF Haiti and its partner Tipa Tipa, a Haitian foundation that works with schools serving disadvantaged populations have integrated the playgrounds in 10 schools in Haiti; half of which are in earthquake –affected urban areas and half of which are located in remote rural areas. Dr. Landers is working closely with Evelyn Margron of Tipa Tipa, supervising the carefully designed evaluation component including the development of training and monitoring manuals and protocols. Their findings and insights will help determine the viability of the project’s expansion. Dr. Landers is also visiting each of the country sites during the pilot phase to coordinate training workshops and follow-up on implementation, providing ongoing country support every step of the way, based on each of their specific needs.

During the upcoming school year, it is expected that 100 teachers will be trained giving at least 5,000 children the opportunity to explore and create.  “When we first met with UNICEF in Haiti, they had a very valuable point, which was that they didn’t want children to stay in the camps for very long. So we created an opportunity to have these playgrounds integrated into the school environment,” said Dr.  Landers, Assistant Professor of Clinical Population and Family Health.

Children who account for 45 % of Bangladesh’s total population are the beneficiaries of UNICEF@Play,  and the project is seen to be  improving the quality of life for children in the country, where nearly half of whom live in poverty. The 20 playgrounds have been delivered to child friendly spaces, orphanages, and child development centers throughout the country. More than 6,000 children are expected to gain a variety of skills from the launch of UNICEF@Play in Bangladesh, and overall training of approximately 400 staff members has now been completed.  

Ms. Margron pointed out that children are developing many skills in the playgrounds from learning geometry to important social skills. One of the most crucial elements of this project, according to Ms. Margron, is that it highlights the importance of learning through play. Learning and play, in certain cultures, are often perceived as opposites.

Dr. Landers will issue a final report based on the data collected from the two participating countries and then submit its findings and recommendations to UNICEF, Disney and The Rockwell Group in the spring, 2013. .

Listen to podcast of UNICEF moderator Femi Oke speak with Dr. Cassie Landers and Ms. Evelyn Margron about the project.

September 28, 2012