Landmark Study Finds Simple Toys Key to Boosting Educational Development and Meeting MDGs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 5

African youth need to play more according to a new landmark study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, The Lancet. The study tackles the high rates of illiteracy and educational under-achievement in Africa and finds that malnourishment and lack of stimulation are leaving millions unable to benefit from schooling. It found projects that encouraged learning through play led to children boosting their IQs and getting better reading skills. And it comes up with a very simple and low-cost solution – but excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs – toys and play.

“These are not high tech interventions,” said team leader for the study, Professor Sally McGregor of the Institute of Child Health of University College London. “Research over decades in Jamaica (and other countries) has shown that women with only primary school-level education and a few home made toys can be trained to make a significant difference in the education, intelligence and mental health of disadvantaged children. The Millennium Goal of universal primary education for all cannot be met unless these children’s poor development is tackled.”

The paper – Strategies to Avoid the Loss of Developmental Potential among Over 200 Million Children in the Developing World – is published in three parts in the journal.

Twenty projects around the world were evaluated for the benefits they produce for children under five who use toys. McGregor, who has set up several projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda designing and constructing toys using whatever materials are available, was appalled by the widespread neglect of play throughout these countries. With play, the study found children read better, have better mental health and better self-esteem. In Africa it is ‘desperate, really desperate’ she says.

African primary school enrolments and literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, with over 42 million school children in sub-Saharan Africa not enrolled in school, and many children not able to afford to go or stay in primary school. Today a little more than half of African adults are literate and some 60 per cent of children go to school, according to UNESCO. The agency has forecasted the need for an additional 1.6 million teachers in Sub-Saharan African classrooms by 2015 – an increase of 68 percent.

The materials used to construct the toys do not need to be expensive or sophisticated. Toys can be constructed from banana trees, mud, corn on the cob, old plastic bottles, or cloth and straw dolls. It is key that the toys are safe for children under five and that anyone building such toys for sale must follow existing manuals.

McGregor continues: ‘One mother in a village was doing marvellous things with tiny scraps of material to make a doll. She received no recognition in the village for the work she was doing yet it was so important. It doesn’t take much – dolls or simple wooden blocks – they are so versatile. You see schools with nothing – it is unforgivable. The problem is how poor these people are – food just takes priority over toys – it is that stark.”

Locally produced toys are key to resolving this crisis for several reasons. Cost is the most important, with those most adversely affected also the least able to pay for toys and who are already living a precarious existence where basic survival takes precedence over play. Another factor is Africa being home to the countries who import the least number of toys: Somalia, Liberia, Togo, Rwanda and Chad. But the situation for African toymakers is often desperate as well, with many craft workers living at the economic margins. Several initiatives have emerged in the last couple of years to address this problem and ensure African toys are local and toymakers earn a living.

Initiatives like the African Toyshop based in Johannesburg, South Africa – a fair trade business – work to ensure African toymakers can make a living and get their wares to as wide a market as possible. The toymakers featured all use natural resources or recycled materials. Most work at the village level and produce toys that are culturally relevant to Africa. The organization COFTA – Cooperation For Fair Trade in Africa – is a network of Fair Trade producer Organizations in Africa involved and working with disadvantaged grassroots producers to eliminate poverty through fair trade. It is an excellent resource for grassroots organizations wanting to work with African toymakers.

Resources

The UK charity TALC – Teaching-aids At Low Cost – is planning to make available toy making manuals on a CD. Tel: (0) 1727 853869

This website also has excellent resources for budding toy and play area makers in Africa.

Online exhibition of African toys: Click here

Book: Africa on the Move: Toys from West Africa Stefan Eisenhofer, Karin Guggeis, Jacques Froidevaux Stuttgart, Germany: Arnoldsche, 2004. 216 pp., 195 color, 28 b/w illustrations. $75.00, cloth.


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