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  • Play can be a therapeutic intervention that helps children in difficult circumstances not only survive but thrive through hardship.
    AKDN / Lucas Cuervo Moura
Putting play at the heart of children’s development

By Dr. Sweta Shah, Aga Khan Foundation

What do all children around the world have in common? They love to play! Play is a basic and natural thing that all humans crave. It helps children (and adults) make sense out of the world and to process their experiences. While play brings joy to children’s lives, it is also critical for their brain development, future learning and ability to contribute to society and the world. 

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has found that during the early years of life, up to 1 million neural connections can be made per second while children take in the world through exploration and play.  Through play, children can develop not only reading, writing and math skills, but also important life skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, negotiation, creativity, empathy and more. 

At the Aga Khan Foundation, we believe in the power of play to shape young minds, prepare them for school success and create peaceful, prosperous, pluralistic societies. As children pretend to be fictional characters or play with classmates from other religions or ethnic backgrounds, they are starting to process and appreciate the perspectives and experiences of others that are different from them. This is the foundation of pluralism.  Play provides a safe place to explore and understand those differences. 

Our programmes engage in the full continuum of learning through play. The three core methods of the continuum include: “free play”, which is child led and directed without adult support; “guided play”, which is child led, but adult supported; and “games”, which are adult designed and supported with rules for children to follow (Zosh et al, 2017).  On the opposite end of the three core methods of play is “direct instruction”, which is a teacher/adult centred approach.  In this method, teachers or adults design and control the activity and have a set of constraints.  This has been the main approach used for learning in pre-schools and classrooms for decades.


Pre-school students at an early learning centre in rural Bangladesh play and learn with toys handcrafted by parents in the community.

As we work in many fragile and conflict contexts, play becomes critical in reducing stress for children and families as it is fun and allows children to relax.  It can be a therapeutic intervention that helps children in difficult circumstances not only survive but thrive through hardship. A critical aspect of the work we do in general and our focus on play is that it’s rooted in children’s cultural and local contexts.

One way we support this is working with teachers, parents, communities and children to make their own toys out of local materials. Not only does this allow play and learning to be locally relevant, but it’s cost effective and better for the environment too.

How do we do this? By integrating toy making workshops as a core part of our professional development for teachers and parents.  Teachers and parents bring materials from their immediate environment and creatively design learning materials based on the age of their children.

This toy making process is also a testament to play.  Many teachers and parents have indicated that they learned about child development, saved money on toys they would have bought, gained peer support and, most importantly, had FUN!

Universal Children’s Day provides us with an opportunity to remember that children around the world have similar needs and PLAY is at the heart of children’s development. 

“Children learn as they play. More importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.”

– O. Fred Donaldson, Author and Supervisory Board Member, Original Play Foundation


Government Middle School Ganish, Hunza - Low cost, no cost teaching aids. An AKF-supported School Improvement Programme (SIP) school. In Pakistan, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF)'s activities in early childhood development provide more than 35,000 students and their families with quality early childhood development opportunities, in both urban and rural settings.
AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer