As Pili Yusuf reaches the classroom door, she turns back to the 30 young children watching hesitantly. All eyes are on her. None of them move. In a room that reverberated with the joyous sounds of playing preschoolers just moments ago, it is a noticeable and touching contrast.
Class is over, but the children don’t want to leave.
A smile spreads across her face. In one swift move, Pili pulls down the homemade puppy mask that rests on her forehead, turns and launches into a song. The students erupt, shouting back a cacophonous response. It’s a happy melee. The third one today.
Eventually, the growing mass of parents outside the classroom door provides motivation to break for the day. As the children flood out into the dusty din of a Tanzanian afternoon, Pili finally takes the puppy mask off. It’s another sweltering day in the tropics, and beads of sweat line her forehead.
“Children imagine differently than adults,” Pili says, wiping her brow. “I need to be creative as a Play Leader.”
Such talk is still new here. While access to primary education has skyrocketed in Tanzania, according to the UN, more than 1.5 million children are still not in school. Just 40 percent of pre-primary-aged children are enrolled. And the education that primary students may have received at the preschool and pre-kindergarten age was vastly different. Certainly, there were no puppy masks.
Moreover, while enrollment has increased, quality has struggled to keep up. In primary schools run by the government, outdated educational models that require rote memorization and recitation still define the learning experience. Corporal punishment is still common.
Nationwide, the average classroom size is 66 students; some swell with as many as 200. Schools are struggling to cope with extreme shortages in textbooks, desks and potable water — and only 18 percent of pre-primary teachers have received formal training.
By contrast, Pili’s school is vibrant. Children are loud. They sing and dance and move their bodies. Toys made by parents and Play Leaders, of materials originating in the community like cloth and clay, are everywhere. The walls are alive with paintings and drawings. The room breathes.
Pili (21) is part of a groundbreaking effort for young children to transform the desires of the present into the opportunities of the future. She’s a Play Leader at BRAC’s Mtoni Unguja Play Lab, just outside Dar es Salaam. The Play Lab project, a three-year partnership with the LEGO Foundation, promotes learning through play as a critical component of early childhood development.
As contemporary research proves, “play is crucial to children’s mental health, and it prepares children for school. It offers both social and cognitive advantages for children and the adults they will become.”
As a Play Leader, Pili teaches 30 children, most of whom are girls, using a play-based curriculum. The Lab is a space designed explicitly to encourage play. This is important because studies continue to link play to the development of key skills in early childhood, including executive functions, resiliency, creativity, problem-solving, social skills and emotional well-being. By interacting with the world around them through play, children learn, develop and practice innovative behaviors and social competencies.
“Children grow up by the way you treat them,” Pili says simply.
Pili is one of many of Play Leaders drawn from BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) program in sub-Saharan Africa, which empowers teenage girls socially and financially and provides safe spaces for them to socialize. The girls meet daily, to develop life skills and mentor each other, helping one another shape the futures they want.
After excelling in her local ELA club as a mentor to girls her age, Pili applied for the Play Leader position. She was accepted, and an intensive, five-day training followed. There she learned about play-based learning, socio-emotional learning, creating play materials that reinforce classroom modules and how children process emotions. Now she’s using those skills to shape young minds, and the future of her country.
Each morning, Pili greets parents when they drop their children off at the Play Lab. She’ll chat with some in the afternoon when they return to take the children home. Beyond their coming and going, she doesn’t have much interaction with the parents — if they’re not working, they’re at home doing daily chores — but that’s changing.
“Before, the parents would send older children to pick up the young ones,” Pili says. “Now they come themselves, and sometimes they come early to observe.”
She’s patient. It’s only been a few months. Pili meets with a parents’ committee monthly, to share her knowledge and discuss each of their children’s development. Allowing children to learn through play provides a strong foundation for learning, but this is a new concept to most in rural areas of Tanzania, where play is viewed at best as a luxury or, at worst, as a waste of time.
One of Pili’s goals is to change parents’ attitudes about play. Fatimah Yuma (22) is one such parent. She used to consider learning as memorizing letters and numbers. That’s how she was taught. When her daughter, Trisha, was young, she didn’t play with her at home.
After she enrolled at the Play Lab, though, Trisha’s personality blossomed. Suddenly, she started coming home singing songs, naming body parts, expressing feelings. She asked her mom to play.
“I’ve realized that children learn by playing,” Fatimah says.
Now, they play together every day, and Fatimah volunteers regularly at Trisha’s Play Lab. It’s part of the larger effort to shift attitudes about play, and ensure the community is engaged. Parents also help make toys, build play structures outside, decorate the Play Labs and share the cost of providing water and a meal to the students.
In keeping with BRAC’s strategic and historical precepts, the Play Lab project is designed to be low-cost and high-impact. Thanks to the LEGO Foundation’s commitment, it should reach more than 7,000 children and train about 500 adolescent girls, like Pili, as paraprofessional Play Leaders by its end.
The dream, however, the shoot-for-the-moon moment, is to design a sustainable model that can be replicated and brought to scale in Tanzania and other similarly low-resource environments. In the meantime, Pili has her work cut out for her. She rises early each morning to prepare the Play Lab for the children and, on days when her ELA club meets or she holds a parents’ meeting, she doesn’t return home until well after dark. Her days are long and challenging. Thanks to the life skills and sexual and reproductive health lessons she learned in her ELA club, Pili knows that having children later in life will allow her to establish her financial independence.
And, while she isn’t a mom yet, she wants to have children of her own one day. “I will also want to know the dreams of my children,” she says. For now, though, her battle cry is her community.
“I want to work for my community,” says Pili. “I want to push it forward. It’s my job.”
BRAC’s Play Lab Project is funded through the generous support of the LEGO Foundation, which aims to build a future where learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, life-long learners.