THE BLOG
09/15/2015 04:25 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2016

Nine Programs that Let Kids Play and Innovate at School

I recently spoke with Lego Foundation CEO Hanne Rasmussen about how schools must do more to build soft skills and allow for playtime as well as focus on numerical and literacy skills. As a busy working mum herself, she personally sees the value in schools incorporating play in the learning process for her 13-year-old son.

I see it too. When I was growing up in a Kenyan village, some of my earliest years of schooling took place under a tree. When we were in a classroom, it had mud floors full of dust and due to over-crowding, some of us had to sit on the floor rather than in chairs, at desks. Of course, I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to go to school at all. UNESCO states that in 2015, millions of children today are out of school.

A very positive aspect of my education was learning through games and having the chance to play with other children. During our many recess breaks, I have fond memories of playing soccer with balls that we had made ourselves from plastic bags. We made our own toy cars, which made me curious about how cars operate. I was in music and dance clubs where we made our own drums and other instruments and we enjoyed competing with other schools. The ability to innovate, play, and explore influenced me to design a simple solar lamp to help children study well when I was 19 years old.

The chance to play, build community, and have exposure to innovative tools and models that place children at the center of the learning process are key to them gaining a good education. But unfortunately, in countries worldwide, this is becoming rarer.

Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, said that over the last three decades, less play has resulted in elementary schoolchildren becoming better test-takers, but they've also become less imaginative. She points out that, "children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle."

Fortunately, there are a growing number of promising initiatives around the world aimed at fixing this. These are nine of them:

  1. Afghanistan: NGO Skateistan uses skateboarding as a way to engage children ages 5-18 and connect them to further education and leadership opportunities.
  2. India: Riverside School has a model where kids take local issues into their own hands, like the seventh graders who worked with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to design new trash bins for city parks and the tenth graders in business studies who came up with a new flavor for the city's ice cream factory.
  3. Malawi: Recently Jacaranda Foundation and my organization Sustainable Development For All collaborated to teach primary and secondary school children how to make solar lamps using simple materials. The response from the children was overwhelming; by allowing them to advance their skills through practical things they can do themselves created a sense of belief in-- and a better understanding of--the importance of education.
  4. Nigeria: Auldon Limited manufactures dolls and other toys which depict, promote and teach Africa's cultural heritage to children including through the Unity Girl Dolls, a set of multi-cultural dolls clad in the traditional attires of Nigeria's major ethnic groups.
  5. Russia, USA and other countries: Lightbot, founded by Danny Yaroslavski, teaches children how to code through gaming and is changing children view on computer science from an early age.
  6. UK: Through Studio Schools, kids work on projects that are related to real life issues. For example, the Mendip Studio School has partnered with the Eden Project and students will work alongside scientists in the Rainforest Biome to create a real rainforest.
  7. USA: Playworks offers professional development for school staff and direct services in low-income elementary schools in 500 schools in 22 US cities. It has been shown to improve conflict resolution and academic performance and it reduces aggression.
  8. Pan-Africa: The Right to Play NGO has partnered with LEGO Foundation in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Rwanda to integrate play-based teaching approaches into schools to better support children's cognitive and life skills development.
  9. Globally: Lego Foundation, the LEGO Group and UNICEF are creating a tower building challenge worldwide. The campaign asks children to imagine the most creative tower they can build with LEGO® DUPLO® bricks - to then build it, take a picture of it and submit it to the website www.LEGO.com/towerofimagination. The LEGO Group will then build one big online tower from all participants' contributions. The more participants who join the tower building challenge, the more LEGO® DUPLO® bricks are donated to children in South Africa, where up to 150 schools and day-care centers are expected to benefit.

As another school year begins, it's important to think about how we can bring innovation to the classroom. Ultimately, it's not just the education we give to children, but the quality of it that will create truly well-rounded people who will develop solutions that will change the world.

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