PlayMatters: Sparking Lifelong Learning through Play

Improving holistic learning outcomes and well-being for children in refugee and host community contexts in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania
Good Practices

PlayMatters: Sparking Lifelong Learning through Play

Improving holistic learning outcomes and well-being for children in refugee and host community contexts in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania
A group of young children looking at pictures they have drawn

"Playing at school rehabilitates them. It helps them to associate with others, but also to refresh their minds from past effects of the war experience in their home country"

- Beatrice Chandiru, Lead Caregiver at Peace ECD centre in Bidi Bidi

The project in brief

The PlayMatters project is being implemented by a consortium led by the International Rescue Committee, and includes Plan International, War Child Holland, Innovations for Poverty Action, the Behavioural Insights Team in Partnership with the LEGO Foundation.

PlayMatters strengthens refugee-hosting education systems’ capacity to train and support pre-primary and primary school teachers and facilitators to use Learning through Play (LtP) as an active teaching and learning method to deliver inclusive and equitable quality education for refugee and host-community children.

To achieve this, PlayMatters works with existing education systems including school-based teacher continuous professional development structures and engages parents and community leaders in support of learning through play.

The goal is to improve holistic learning outcomes and well-being for 800,000 children ages 3-12+ who live in refugee and host communities in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

A pre-primary teacher (known as a caregiver) in a Ugandan refugee settlement shares her experience implementing Learning through Play methods with young children and how she has learned how to facilitate hands-on interactions with people and materials including a broad range of locally created manipulatives and how this has improved her practice ©PlayMatters

Main activities of the Good Practice

PlayMatters is implemented through a Core Package which includes six intervention components. The Core Package is implemented in a school for one full school year (beginning of school year to end of school year), including foundational teacher training at the beginning of the school year, a follow-up training midway through the year, and continuous professional development provided throughout the school year. The process of transitioning PlayMatters good practice to system actors is gradual, reinforced by the uptake of project activities and emerging evidence, aligned to standard and routine activities conducted by respective system actors.

The PlayMatters Core package includes skills-building and resources supply, consisting of 6 elements:

  1. Teacher Training: Teachers/facilitators in the school or centre participate in face-to-face training on LtP methods and practices.
  2. Continuous Professional Development: The school participates in Continuous Professional Development (CPD) for teachers on LtP, including supportive supervision/coaching, peer learning, and supportive messaging.
  3. Teaching & Learning Materials: Teachers and pupils are provided with basic Teaching and Learning Materials and support with the local creation of TLMs.
  4. School Leadership Training: School leaders participate in training on how to build a supportive environment for LtP at school.
  5. Community Engagement: School community members and parents/guardians are engaged in LtP activities including contextually relevant awareness-raising and mobilization.
  6. Enabling School Environment: The school/centre meets minimum LtP quality standards for safety and client inclusion (this is resource dependent and may require some level of rehabilitation/direct service provision).

PlayMatters collaborates with system actors at community, school, district, regional and national level to engage in project activities intended to progressively strengthen their capacity to deliver LtP in schools and aid the transition from appreciation of LtP to ownership, delivery, and sustainability. PlayMatters recognizes that education systems are complex and getting all children in school and learning requires alignment across families, educators, and decision makers. It requires shared goals and national policies that put learning at the centre. It also requires data collection and regular monitoring to help policymakers identify what’s working, who’s benefiting, and who’s left behind. To this end, PlayMatters work with and through education and refugee system actors at all levels to turn policies into education outcomes.

How LEGO Six Bricks concept is integrated into PlayMatters LtP delivery in pre-primary classrooms in an Ugandan refugee settlement. Six Bricks activities are short, simple exercises or games aligned with the curriculum that are designed to wake up the brain and get the child learning, moving, thinking, and remembering. They support all areas of development in the curriculum including mathematics, language arts, the sciences, and beyond ©PlayMatters

Elements which helped facilitate the implementation of the good practice

PlayMatters supports the implementation of existing national active learning policy priorities in Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, working through education systems to implement Learning through Play (LtP) methods via rigorous teacher professional development, building an enabling environment for LtP at the school, and community engagement in LtP activities. All elements are contextualized and implemented in partnership with education system actors including school leaders, school community leaders, government institutions responsible for education delivery, and humanitarian service providers.

"Previously, I used to teach using just flashcards and writing on the blackboard. Today, I use songs and various teaching and learning materials. If I am going to teach shapes for instance, I use a song, mummy making chapatti, samosa and they guess which shape it is, like chapatti for circle and samosa for triangle"

- Shukuru Mushesha, an ECD caregiver, in Kyaka II Refugee Settlement, credits her behaviour in the classroom to the training she got on Learning through Play (LtP) in 2022

Partners involved

PlayMatters is implemented in partnership with the LEGO Foundation as a consortium, by:

A group of primary school children putting cards with different words onto sticks which are in bottles of sand

What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?


PlayMatters encountered three major challenges:

  1. The project commenced in early 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, closing schools in all three countries. Then in November 2020, armed conflict broke out in Northern Ethiopia, devastating some of PlayMatters’ areas of implementation including sites in Tigray.
  2. As a refugee education systems-strengthening project, PlayMatters sits in the humanitarian-development nexus (meaning the overlap between the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the provision of long-term development assistance). This led to key challenges around how to consider immediate humanitarian needs against the core technical assistance mandate of the project.
  3. Finally, the word "play" initially created confusion in all three countries as it was understood as something that belongs outside of the classroom – at recess and after school – and not inside classrooms, where children should be "serious".

How they were overcome

PlayMatters responded to these challenges in the following ways:

  1. The project worked with the LEGO Foundation to adapt quickly to changing conditions, ultimately producing emergency home-based LtP content in response to school closures in all three countries (PM@Home packets); supporting the Ugandan government’s Return to School campaign; implementing a multi-sectoral Emergency Response Mechanism in Ethiopia; and developing an Accelerated Education LtP training pack for teachers in post-conflict Tigray. This is all in addition to the core LtP programming.
  2. PlayMatters collaborated with LEGO Foundation to develop a set of Minimum LtP Quality Standards, indicating basic educational infrastructure that must be in place for LtP to be effective, and adapted the implementation model to enable direct infrastructure support to schools.
  3. In response to contextual challenges around the work “play,” PlayMatters redefined LtP as a type of active learning methodology, aligning with existing policy priorities in all three countries, thereby helping education systems implement their existing curriculum with quality.

Results of the Good Practice

Through the core project interventions to date, PlayMatters has trained 4,341 teachers (Uganda 2,522, Tanzania 486, Ethiopia 1,333), with a total of 443,948 children reached (Uganda 329,323, Tanzania 58,536, Ethiopia 56,089) through Learning through Play approaches across 346 schools reached (Uganda 226, Tanzania 68, Ethiopia 53). Out of the total reach, 67% of the teachers, 61% of the children and 53% of the schools reached are refugee.

One educator in Ethiopia reported "The child used to leave the class when he was bored. However, the project has changed this, and now the child is smiling, laughing, and happy in class. They understand the lesson better. When parents see their child happy, they start thanking us. Initially, they questioned how teaching through singing could be effective. This allowed us to build a relationship with the parents as well. The children sing the alphabet at home, reinforcing their memory and making it easier for them to remember and understand the lesson."

In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?

Objective 1: Ease the pressures on host countries

PlayMatters eases the pressure on host countries by strengthening refugee-hosting education systems’ capacity to train and support pre-primary and primary school teachers and facilitators to use Learning through Play (LtP) as an active teaching and learning method. PlayMatters empowers teachers and supports children’s social-emotional well-being and holistic learning outcomes. PlayMatters also bridges the gap between refugees and host communities.

Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance

PlayMatters enhances refugee self-reliance by improving children’s holistic learning outcomes and 21st century skills, as well as their well-being. PlayMatters provides opportunities for learning, building skills, and improving livelihoods. It can also serve as a tool of protection, mitigating risks for children and providing care in a context of upheaval.

Next steps

PlayMatters is focusing its final two years of programming on sustainability and scale, seeking ways to extend the life of LtP content and approaches beyond 2026, with a focus on strengthening existing refugee education systems and policies to integrate LtP.

Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?

PlayMatters is seeking partnerships and financial support to continue scaling the PM core package in new contexts, as well as emergency variants of the materials (PM@Home, PM Accelerated Education, PM in emergencies).

We also seek support with policy advocacy across contexts to ensure integration of LtP approaches – defined as active learning – within existing education sector structures and refugee and humanitarian settings.

Submitted by

Camilla Wøldike, Policy Advisor, PlayMatters, Plan International Denmark - [email protected]; Anne Smiley, Deputy Project Director, Technical and Research, PlayMatters, International Rescue Committee, Uganda - [email protected]

Contact the project

To: [email protected]; cc: [email protected]