The Power of Play (Batteries Not Included)

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By By Christine Ennulat
Posted on 12/15/2010


alien bear
Ugandan doll

Let’s compare and contrast these paired images.

The über-cool remote-controlled helicopter on the left can actually fly, tacking side-to-side, up and down. So can the plane at right — but it’s kid-powered. And it looks a bit friendlier.

In the second row, this cute little bear laughs, sings in harmony and has something called “chatter mode.” To its right, the guitar — again, kid-powered — makes the most beautiful music imaginable.

Next, the doll on the left, gussied up in satin and tiara, has a whole line of clothing and accessories that can be added to her wardrobe. But the other doll can change from banana leaves into any garment and any expression at all. Just add imagination.

The left-hand column includes some of this year’s best-selling toys, especially hot as the holiday season is upon us. The others come from ChildFund’s traveling exhibition of toys made by children in developing countries, “The Power to Play: From Trash to Treasure.” Children made the toys using everything from scrap fabric, wood and tin to banana fiber to plastic bottles and bottle caps and bags to wire to flip-flops and shoes.

In addition to the visible differences between the two sets of toys, there is a less tangible one. The ones on the left, typical of those found throughout developed countries, do a lot more — they fly, they make noise, their features are well-defined, they have moving parts and attachments — whereas the others are simpler, reminiscent of classic toys from days gone by, and they leave more room for the imagination.

However, the most salient difference between toys from developed countries and toys from developing countries is that developed countries have toys and developing countries pretty much don’t.

And this is a huge problem. A 2007 study published in The Lancet suggests that the comparative neglect of play in developing countries is part of what is behind the low educational achievement that characterizes populations living in extreme poverty. The three-part study found evidence that adult-led play activities using simple, homemade toys during the preschool years can significantly increase IQs and improve later reading skills. The lead researcher, Sally McGregor, told the BBC, “The Millennium Goal of universal primary education for all cannot be met unless these children’s poor development is tackled.”

The study supports what the international development community has long known — that play is powerful stuff. In the Convention on the Rights of the Child, written in 1989, Article 31 recognizes children’s rights “to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts” and mandates that signatories provide opportunities for these.

With our 70 years of working with and knowing children, ChildFund has long understood the importance of play and has made it central in many of its programs, including its Early Child Development Centers, Child-Centered Spaces, Roving Caregiver programs and many other efforts worldwide. We know play is one of children’s greatest needs. Play is exploratory and social, and it builds confidence. What’s more, we know that it is a drive that seems to be built into children. “The Power to Play” shows how when children don’t have access to toys, they create them. They start with a picture in their minds, and then they bring that picture into reality.

This is an early exercise in having power over one’s environment. The more that children can experience such power early in life, the more equipped they are to face the powerlessness that comes with extreme poverty — and to change it.

In giving themselves the power to play, children experience the power of play — which, really, is the child’s version of the power to change the world. And it starts with a ball made from plastic bags and string, or a truck made from wire and bottle caps.