Learning early childhood skills through play: an interview with the LEGO Foundation

Photo by Tina Floersch on Unsplash

Euan Wilmshurst

Head of Advocacy and Communication, LEGO Foundation

The LEGO Foundation shares the mission of inspiring and developing the builders of tomorrow with the LEGO Group. As part of the LEGO family, it was established in 1986 and has become a central player in promoting early childhood education and learning through play for all children, everywhere.
The LEGO Foundation aim to build a future where learning through play empowers all children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners. Through 25% ownership of the LEGO Group, the LEGO Foundation has helped fund programs that ensure children across the world learn and develop holistic skills.

Today, Euan Wilmshurst, Head of Advocacy and Communication at the LEGO Foundation (and proud Dad of a five-year-old) tells us about the importance of early childhood education for skills development, the work of the LEGO Foundation, and what he thinks businesses can do to support early childhood education.“Why is early childhood education important for skills development?”

There’s a huge challenge around skills needed for the future, such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, sociability and collaboration – all of which are going to be required in a the new reality which has been exacerbated by the Covid crisis. The Education Commission predicts that by 2030, 825 million children – particularly in low and middle-income countries – will reach adulthood without the skills they need to thrive in their work and life. With society changing at a faster pace than ever, children need help to cultivate the skills necessary to navigate this very uncertain world. Play is one way that young children learn and develop such skills, but unfortunately, this is sometimes not taken into account in early childhood programs, despite it being the most natural way of acquiring essential knowledge. That’s why learning through play is a crucial component for the development of holistic skills for the future.“How does the LEGO Foundation support the early years?” –

The LEGO Foundation supports the early years, as a critical part of the work that we do and fund. We’re committed to redefining play and reimagining learning to ensure children develop the skills they need to navigate an uncertain and complex world. The initiatives that we have ultimately aim to reach millions of children systematically with learning through play, wherever there’s an opportunity to scale our work and make a difference. In 32 different countries we have programs working-through our partners to drive learning through play and the development of a breadth of skills. For early childhood specifically our initiatives focus on establishing and deepening learning through play practices in three settings. The first reaches parents and caregivers directly with activities and messages which demonstrate the benefits and value of play and the link to learning in those early years. The second centers on working with partners to identifying support and adapting affordable high-quality learning through play models, as early childhood centers supporting whole child development. Then the third area focuses on communities. We work with our partners to reach local communities where we work with our partners to provide culturally-relevant “learn to play” experiences in places like public spaces, community settings, parks, children’s museums, and libraries. In total, we’ve invested over $200 million US dollars over the last couple of years in bringing the power of learning through play in early childhood to the most vulnerable children, specifically to those who find themselves in refugee settings. The first hundred million was our Play to Learn partnership, which is a consortium led by the Sesame Workshop which delivers models of implementation, evidence and advocacy to better support children under six affected by crises. This has a real focus on playful parenting and playful learning, and we expect more than six million children will benefit from the program. The second hundred million grant was the Play Matters partnership, which is a consortium led by the International Rescue Committee to ensure that children between 3 and 12 in long-term refugee settings can all benefit from quality learning through play experiences. We’ve also partnered with Education Cannot Wait to ensure that at least 10% of their grants are committed to early childhood development in emergency settings. We also have the playful parenting initiative which is really focused on seeing more parents and caregivers of children under three years of age actively engaging in learning through play and investing in research to understand the most effective ways of how we can best do this. Early childhood a critical area for us at the LEGO Foundation.“How can businesses support early childhood education?” –

As I think as we all know, it’s perhaps self-evident that children are the employees of the future, and so businesses really need to ensure that they’re supporting the development of the skills that are needed in the working world of tomorrow. We know as I think I’ve said in some previous answers that we really need skills like critical thinking, problem solving, self-management, stress, tolerance, and flexibility – all of which can be developed in early childhood through learning through play models. That’s one which focuses on how we collectively drive the development of skills. I think there’s a few things business can do to support early childhood, including offering parents and caregivers more flexible work options so that they are able to adjust their work life around their child’s schedule, which allows them ultimately to spend more time nurturing their own children’s development. Another would be supporting learning through play with creative technology. I think as technology rapidly advances, children need to be equipped with digital skills, so businesses can look to support early childhood education by donating equipment and resources or engaging in the type of training that will give children the ability to familiarize themselves with technology. And finally, very importantly, I’d advocate for prioritizing and reinventing learning.  At the LEGO Foundation, we’re a proud supporter of the Save Our Future campaign, a global coalition of organizations raising awareness of the state of education, calling for governments to prioritize education in COVID-19 recovery plans. In supporting something like that, businesses can really ensure that they are a key voice in advocating for the prioritization and reinvention of education. Ultimately, we are strengthening the education workforce and making education inclusive, engaging, and adaptive and ensuring that our children of today are prepared for the world of the future and for the work of the future.“How has the pandemic impacted early childhood education?”

The pandemic has had a huge impact on everything, but certainly on early childhood education. It’s been hugely disruptive to the early years. We know that educational settings, including schools, nurseries, and many places across the world have been forced to close. In total the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left 1.5 billion children out of their usual learning environment. That already sets the scene. It’s resulted in millions of working parents balancing working with supporting their child’s education through homeschooling. There was a survey, I believe by Home Start in the UK, which showed that 52% of UK parents felt their children had not coped well over the last year; 92% of parents said their biggest concern is the impact the pandemic had on their child’s development and behavior. We’re hearing firsthand from parents and caregivers just how big the impact has been. But we’ve also seen that as parents working from home, there’s evidence that they were able to spend more time playing, and we believe that learning through play is one of the key vehicles to help children, and actually adults, cope with the effects of the pandemic. I think there’s opportunities there to see play as a great way to bring families together, facilitate quality time with parents and children, and it’s really beneficial for mental health, relieving stress, and strengthening those familial bonds. It’s been a huge impact, and we’re still seeing that impact, but it also provides a great opportunity for us to rethink how we develop children.

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