Learning through play: A review of evidence related to play for children’s education and development.

Jan 05, 2022

About this publication

This review focuses on how learning through play in humanitarian and low resource contexts can be delivered through teachers, parents and in communities to improve holistic learning outcomes for children. It provides evidence on how these interventions can be best integrated in the education system in primary schools, homes and in community settings. 

This is a first of its kind review. Previous evidence reviews on the use of learning through play to improve holistic outcomes for children have focused primarily on developed countries and stable education settings.


This review utilized literature focusing on interventions that have a strong impact on holistic learning outcomes (academic/cognitive, social, emotional, physical, creative) for refugee, displaced, and host children aged 3-12+. These include early literacy and numeracy, reading and math skills, cognitive development, physical growth, creative skills, socio-emotional learning, well-being, and resilience. Over 30 resources ranging from briefs, case studies, observational studies, participatory action research, systematic reviews, impact evaluations and a handbook were reviewed.

Highlighted findings

The review shows that play helps to improve social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development in early childhood – which is a key period for human development. Crisis can lead to major instabilities in children’s development, making play-based educational approaches a key tool for children’s holistic development especially in refugee contexts.

Home based delivery: Parents and guardians have an important role in encouraging home-based learning through play. Improving parenting skills as part of home-based play interventions can improve positive family interactions and boost children’s self-esteem, positive emotions, and social skills.  

Community-based delivery: Play-based interventions with a strong community engagement component can improve children’s psychosocial, behavioral, and learning outcomes. These include after school educational activities, cultural and recreational activities, and radio programs delivered through community-based play spaces, and through safe outdoor playgrounds.

Pre-primary/primary education setting: Play is often incorporated into formal pre-primary/primary educational settings through teachers, and sometimes involve a parental engagement component. Teacher professional development and parental skills programs in learning through play can improve learning and psychosocial well-being outcomes for children.

Education policy & curriculum: There is a lack of robust evidence for how to incorporate play most effectively as part of national policies and systems. Some of the obstacles include lack of teacher development focused on playful learning, lack of resources for play materials, and large class sizes. This review offers some recommendations on how to effectively incorporate learning through play in national policies and systems.

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