Planning for playtime: insights from the Gambia

11 June 2024


Salvador Aznar/
A group of children from the Gambia.

Playing is an essential part of every child’s life. It helps build resilience, form strong relationships, improve problem-solving skills, and even overcome trauma. On the inaugural International Day of Play, 11 June, the power of playing is now recognized globally.

Let’s head to the Gambia, where the government aims to increase gross pre-primary enrolment to 75%, with a focus on rural areas, by 2030. Recognizing the importance of play is central to this ongoing effort, as play-based learning can help prepare our youngest learners for future academic success.

What works, and at what cost?

When it comes to early childhood education, most research has focused on the impact of enrolling young children in programmes.

In the Gambia, IIEP-UNESCO explored a critical yet overlooked angle – the type of intervention, its quality, and its cost. 

As part of its 2016-2030 Education Sector Strategic Plan, the Gambia has committed to expanding early childhood education. Currently, barely one child in two is enrolled in pre-primary school.

Understanding what works and at what cost is crucial to supporting the country with scaling up this sub-sector, which has been provided publicly since 2000.

“While the study highlighted some areas that require urgent attention, such as the lack of materials in classrooms or teacher training to promote their use, we also identified the space and national willingness to make tremendous improvements in this important sub-sector that can help shape one’s entire learning journey,” says IIEP programme specialist and the report’s author, Diane Coury.

The study analyzes five pre-primary models operating in the Gambia, spanning government, private, informal schools (Madrasa), community-based, and mission centres. It also provides recommendations for policy-makers to make sure that no matter which ECE model a child attends, they leave pre-school school ready.

“While tailored to the Gambia, the recommendations are insightful for other countries operating in similar low-income settings and facing similar challenges,” Coury says.

The study also highlights three factors that can positively shape early learning and promote equity, all of which stress the importance of play in early childhood education.

1. Engage and play at home

The study looked at the home learning environment based on the presence of books and toys and the types of activities carried out by household members aged 15 and over. Among the survey sample, 67% of adults played with children at home, however, nearly half of the children were not read to, told stories, or sang to at home. Promoting play in the home environment and parental engagement in learning activities reinforce what children learn in school, helping to promote school readiness.

2. Ensure the availability of locally-made outdoor games and equipment

Outdoor play is crucial for developing motor function, language, and social skills. However, the study found that the availability of outdoor equipment and games could be improved and made more equitable among its youngest learners. Only 18% of children were enrolled in centers with outdoor equipment, and there was an average of four outdoor games per school. Among the 66% of pupils who had outdoor games, the number of games varied significantly, from 2.4 games in Madrasa ECD centres to 47 in private centres.

Locally-made and sourced toys and equipment are a promising solution as they would enrich learning environments for young children while also stimulating local businesses and lowering the costs of acquiring equipment. 

3. Promote the use of pedagogical materials

The availability of pedagogical materials and toys is important to stimulate children’s motor and cognitive skills development. However, the presence of materials does not always translate into them being used. Among pupils in private ECD centres, 42% have some art materials present, but most pupils were not observed using them.

Teacher training in how to use these materials is critical to ensure that children use the available materials. At the same time, the study highlighted the lack of materials in many centres – for example, 85% of centres did not have fantasy play toys and 87% did not have any blocks. Allocating resources to acquire these types of pedagogical resources is important for hands-on, play-based learning, allowing children to communicate and express themselves creatively and socially, and to develop cognitive, motor, and language skills.

Where do we go from here?

This study provided crucial insights into how, where, and at what cost children had the opportunity to learn through play – whether in school or at home. This type of analysis is critical to helping the Gambian government and its partners shape the future of early childhood education and break the cycle of inequity.

Going forward, an emphasis on school and classroom learning equipment, teacher training, and stronger links between the classroom and home environment can help every child in the Gambia flourish.

Why play matters

Children’s brains develop rapidly in the first few years of life. A stimulating and nurturing environment, which includes opportunities for play, promotes children’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, shaping their lives well into the future.

Children who miss out on such environments may not fully develop key competencies that are difficult to acquire later in life. Poverty can also curb their exposure to critical resources and stimuli, leading to disadvantages from their first days in school.

However, quality education programmes for early childhood can disrupt this cycle of inequity, by providing a conducive environment for early learning, health, nutrition, and protection.

Despite these well-established benefits, early childhood education remains severely underfunded, with an average of only 1.9% of the education budgets in low-income countries and less than 1% of total international aid to education.