“Playful beginnings”: new KIX research collaborations for better early learning

Read how the LEGO Foundation and the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) are supporting 5 new promising initiatives aiming at strengthening early learning in 11 countries of East, West and Southern Africa.

March 31, 2022 by Joy Nafungo, International Development Research Centre, Tricia Wind, International Development Research Centre, Sangay Jamtsho, International Development Research Centre, Alice Jowett, The LEGO Foundation, Sarah Bouchie, The LEGO Foundation, and Christin McConnell, GPE Secretariat
5 minutes read
A primary classroom at Kokebe School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Ethiopia, November 2013. Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme
A primary classroom at Kokebe School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme 

This blog post was jointly authored by the International Development Research Centre (Joy Nafungo, Tricia Wind and Sangay Jamtso), the Global Partnership for Education (Christin McConnell and Claire Sandrine Dijoux) and the LEGO Foundation (Alice Jowett and Sarah Bouchie).

Quality early-learning prepares young children for school and for life. Global evidence shows that early learning is one of the best investments a country can make in their education system.

Yet, while much is known about the benefits, and while many African governments have increased their commitments to early learning, there are gaps in knowing how to adapt and scale approaches that work best for young children, while addressing equity and gender equality.

Therefore, with support from the LEGO Foundation, the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) launched a call for proposals for applied research in the summer of 2021.

Today we are very pleased to announce that CAD 5M has been awarded to five new projects to strengthen early learning in 11 countries of East, West and Southern Africa1.

How did the projects come about?

KIX funds applied research that responds to the priorities of education systems across the global South.

Education representatives from countries across the KIX Africa19 region – including GPE partner countries across East, West and Southern Africa – identified early childhood education (ECE) as a key priority in 2020 and supported a deeper reflection on common issues and challenges through their ECE community of practice in 2021.

The call for proposals on early learning was designed so KIX can fund deeper, longer-term research to feed in-country knowledge needs as well as regional dialogue in the KIX hub.

An exciting new partnership

Early learning

The interest of Africa19 countries in early learning links to ECE policy priorities and research acknowledging that:

  1. Young children’s learning involves physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional aspects.
  2. School readiness and the transition between pre-primary and primary education are core concerns for early learning research, which argues that these need to be addressed in a holistic way, involving the child, family, community, and school
  3. Learning through play is central to quality early-learning for young children. Meaningful, joyful, iterative, socially interactive, actively engaging approaches support learning outcomes, and can make a critical difference in mitigating early disadvantages.

With an estimated 74% of pre-primary-aged children without opportunities for early learning and low levels of government and international funding, there is an urgent need to identify, innovate, and scale evidence-based, cost-effective practices, to maximize school readiness.

We believe the following set of priorities need more attention:

  • Strengthening early-learning mechanisms and frameworks to enhance children’s school readiness and the transition from pre-primary to primary school.
  • Identifying proven or promising learning-through-play approaches, establishing how these approaches can be adapted and scaled up in low-resource contexts while promoting gender equality, equity, and inclusion.
  • Supporting parents, caregivers, communities, and school leadership with appropriate capacities, and working together to help children bridge the transition from pre-primary to primary school.
  • Aligning the early years and early primary-school curriculum, assessment, and learning environments with how young children learn best.
  • Supporting teachers’ capacity with effective teacher professional development on learning-through-play approaches for better teaching and learning.

The strong response to the early learning call for proposals, with over 140 proposals received and assessed, is an illustration of the growing interest of the applied research community to contribute to improving outcomes for the region’s youngest learners.

A teacher helping a group of students at Hidassie School. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: GPE/Midastouch
A teacher helping a group of students at Hidassie School. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

5 new promising initiatives

The overall goal of the five new applied research projects is to generate and mobilize evidence on how to adapt and scale approaches that strengthen quality early learning for all children, based on how they learn best, and support smooth transitions between pre-primary and the early grades of primary education.

Each of the following projects tackles combinations of the five areas above, in multiple countries. Click on the titles to find out more about each project.

Gender Responsive Education and Transformation: Early Childhood Education through Play for Scale will implement a promising gender responsive and play-based learning approach in select ECE centers to gather evidence of its benefits as a low-cost and contextually appropriate solution for scale up in Rwanda and Mozambique. Using action research, it aims to inform how such an approach can be introduced in pre-primary education to shape gender norms, develop life skills, and improve learning outcomes.

The Child-to-Child Learning Approach: Inclusive play-based learning for smooth transition will generate knowledge on how to adopt and scale up the child-to-child model at national and community levels to improve transition of children from pre-primary to primary school in Uganda, Ethiopia and Malawi. Particularly, the research will explore how older children can be supported to promote playful learning in lower primary and early childhood centers to promote transition, with the view that children are a resource that can help meet the psychosocial and learning needs of other children and families living in difficult circumstances.

Promoting positive early learning outcomes through strengthened capacity in learning through play will generate evidence on how to build capacity of the early childhood education workforce on play-based approaches to enhance school readiness in The Gambia, Kenya and Nigeria. The research will be anchored on a model known as Tayari, a cost-effective and scalable ECE model that has been proven to promote school readiness. The research will use a mixed methods approach for data collection and will take an integrated approach to scaling up by bringing together different parts, contexts, and stakeholders to co-create and to better understand play based approaches.

Teacher Capacity Building for Play-Based Early Learning will study the effectiveness of teacher training on play-based approach provided by Right To Play and Teach for Sierra Leone in Ghana and Sierra Leone respectively in both rural and urban settings. The purpose of this will be to generate knowledge and evidence to inform policy and the practice of play-based learning and teacher training for early childhood education in the two countries.

Scaling the School Readiness Initiative: Strengthening School and Community Capacities for Play-based Learning will generate knowledge on how to implement and scale up the School Readiness Initiative, an early learning model that involves home, school, and community to support holistic development of children and prepare them for a smooth transition to school in Uganda and Zambia. It aims to contribute to the enhancement of early learning frameworks and development of contextually relevant learning resources with the involvement of teachers, parents, and pupils while also working closely with education officials at all levels in the two countries.

The projects will be implemented by consortia, led by African organizations. In total, 17 organizations will be involved - networks, universities, and NGOs - both African and North American.

We very much look forward to watching their progress over the next two years. Look for updates on the KIX website.

  1. The call welcomed proposals including work in at least two of the following countries: Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

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Us from west Africa and Africa in general are very much greatful with this gesture.I’m from north east Nigeria where terrorism has ramp we have a good number of out of school children please we call on you for assistance.thank you

Our organization would love to support your work in play-based learning. We look forward to finding a way to connect with you. In partnership with local communities, Play360 has built 144 educational playgrounds in 14 countries, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia. A registered U.S. not-for-profit organization in operation since 2010, Play360 focuses on training individuals to build low-cost teaching supplies, including playgrounds, in order to enhance student learning outcomes. Using local materials (such as used tires, bamboo, paint), local tools, and local expertise, our projects are led and organized by the community. Play360 team members provide support as requested and work to co-create playground designs that reflect the needs of each particular community.

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