NIKKI BUSH: We must stop ‘play poverty’ to close the skills gap


“Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” - Albert Einstein.

Whether we are living under pandemic conditions or not, we must always be wary of the danger of ‘play poverty’, also known as ‘low play lives’. There is a growing awareness in the world that environments that are not rich in play-based learning or playful experiences can lead to a ‘play gap’. This, in turn, leads to gaps in a child’s learning. Ultimately, a play gap can result in a skills gap, leading to potential unemployment. The bedfellow to unemployment is crime, something I am all too familiar with, having lost my husband in a home invasion for a few computers and cellphones.

In a world now in various stages of lockdown and re-phasing in due to the coronavirus pandemic, we need to be more aware than ever of the link between play poverty and a future skills gap. Due to COVID-19, schools and early childhood development (EDC) centres have been shut down. A report published by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in April 2020 warns that many of these 30,000 EDC centres are increasingly unlikely to ever open again. This is a crisis!

Currently, orphanages cannot receive visitors who provide regular stimulation for vulnerable children and all of South Africa’s children are unable to play in public outdoor spaces and socialise normally with each other due to being housebound or because of social distancing at school.

This issue has both an immediate social and emotional impact as well as generational impact. We cannot afford yet another lost generation and need to do everything we can to ensure continued stimulation and play for our nation’s children.

To stimulate their rampant creativity, curious nature and natural desire to learn and discover, children need rich environments to explore, caring adults to hold the space for them, and toys, games, books and resources to help them to tap into their innate brilliance.

Play is a language of its own and it's also a child’s natural way of dealing with stress and anxiety. They can play their emotions out and express themselves when they don’t have the words with which to say how they are feeling. During COVID-19 this is more essential now than ever as children are struggling with increased fear and anxiety.

It's time for society to wake up to the sheer power and importance of play in a child's early development. Most people don't connect the dots between low play lives and the skills gap it creates in later life, impacting on numeracy, literacy and overall employability. The neuroscience behind the connection, however, is becoming so clear that 'play poverty' is a term that recently found its way into the World Economic Forum.


Learning through play is deceptive in that the learning is not always obvious in the way that it might be in a formal learning environment where a child is tested. We have a very narrow view of learning, thinking that it only happens between the covers of books, on a digital screen or within the four walls of a classroom in a school.

Play, however, is a multisensory experience that often takes place in three dimensions. The early childhood years, from birth to age 9, should be characterised mostly by real, concrete learning experiences in which children engage their whole selves - mind and body. Play is thinking made real or visible. Children put their own thoughts and ideas to the test when they play. They thrive on making things happen, on testing their natural curiosity through discovery rather than having knowledge drummed into their heads in a formal way. Play is about children putting their own thoughts into action in a multitude of different ways.


Think of a child’s development much like a brick wall. If there are bricks missing in the foundations, the likelihood is that the wall will, at some point, wobble and fall down. We see this time and time again as children are pushed through the education system without consolidation of their basic numeracy and literacy skills, and we wonder why school is so difficult for them, why so many drop out by grade 10, and why our matric results are so dismal.

The many perceptual skills required for school readiness are developed through exploration and stimulation. This means all the basic building blocks a child will need to develop the foundations for reading, writing, spelling and mathematics (numeracy and literacy) can be developed through play. In other words, the neural wiring can be put in place long before a child formally learns how to read and write in primary school, and it can be done in the low-stress environment of play and discovery, engendering a love of learning.

In addition, children acquire language through play and social interaction with their parents and other adults and children. With language and strong numeracy and literacy foundations, children can enter the formal learning environment of primary school ready for the rigours of abstract academic learning.

Parents need to be educated and equipped about their role in helping their children to learn through play. Early learning and play-based preschool education should be available to all of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens to ensure the strong foundations are laid in the early years.

During the coronavirus pandemic we also need to take a long hard look at why our youngest children are going to be the last to go back to school when they are least at risk of contracting the virus or of spreading the virus.

These youngsters are missing out on essential stimulation for their development while the Department of Basic Education and Department of Social Development pass the ECD ball like a hot potato between them. Let’s not forget how many of these children from our poorest and most vulnerable communities are also missing out on what is possibly their most nutritious meal, or their only meal, of the day at these centres.


As a nation, let’s ensure that our preschool and foundation phase learners have the resources – toys, games, books and rich learning and playing environments - to stimulate them. Let’s commit to an understanding of the importance of play and our role in helping children to learn through play, whether we are parents, educators or concerned members of the community. We all have a role to play in raising, caring for, and protecting the next generation of employable citizens.

There is no world in which no play is okay. Let’s value and honour play. Let’s protect and invest in the youngest members of society, both the fortunate as well as the vulnerable children and orphans. Better matric results start with ensuring that the children who enter the school system are school ready, and this starts with play. Let no child be left behind because we didn’t care enough to ensure they played enough.

I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on this generational issue that impacts on us all both today and in the future. I say it again: there is no world in which no play is okay.

Nikki Bush is a human potential and parenting expert. Follow her on Twitter @bushnikki