Through safe places to play, UNICEF is helping to boost children’s brains in Kenya

There’s nothing more contagious than the giggles and laughter of young children. In fact, one of the great pleasures of my job is helping the boys and girls at our Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres get excited and energised through the world of play. But it’s not all just for fun. Through research, we now know that play is essential for stimulating children’s brain development and can have a lasting impact on their ability to thrive later in life.  Sadly, many children in the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya don’t have access to places to play.

Grandparents play a vital role in bringing up children in Isiolo county. UNICEF’s outreach to families ensures that all caregivers learn about positive parenting practices.

The country suffers from high levels of inequality, with 42% of the population still living below the poverty line and 80% of all Kenyan children deprived of one or more basic need, including education. There are many reasons for this, including low levels of infrastructure and investment and the vulnerability of some counties to severe drought, flooding and famine.

Isiolo and Samburu are two such counties, which is why we chose to focus our work with the IKEA Foundation here. Before the project started, caregivers lacked knowledge in supporting the development of young children. None of the existing health facilities had functioning spaces for children to play.

Now, with the IKEA Foundation’s support, 2,000 caregivers have learned the skills they need to engage children in activities such as singing songs, telling stories and reading books.

Children learning and playing at Waso ECD centre in Isiolo. The integration of stimulating activities into the day benefits these children, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As part of the programme, a number of health facilities and well over a hundred ECD centres will be equipped with both indoor and outdoor play and learning areas to enhance play, stimulation and learning, so that thousands of children can benefit. Halima Sora, a teacher at Marire ECD centre, says: “After the repair of the outdoor play equipment, children enjoy their playtime. It’s fun and engaging. Outdoor activities have become more interesting and participatory.”

Some 64 ECD and health workers have already been trained in Care for Child Development to promote nurturing care through engaging children in stimulating activities. “Children no longer stay idle while waiting to see the doctor. They play at the swings, slides and see-saws next to the waiting area,” says Nurse Pauline Ewoi from Isiolo County.

The programme has also set up county-level ECD groups. This has been welcomed by county leaders and led to positive outcomes in other sectors, for instance the issuance of birth certificates to hundreds of children who didn’t previously have this documentation.

I am honoured to be part of this partnership with the IKEA Foundation and UNICEF that has improved the health and well-being of at least 3,500 children through the provision of safe play spaces and activities.

Safe places to play are a starting point to bring services on nutrition, stimulation, parenting to communities.

Watching children play on the swings and slides is such a simple pleasure, but behind the scenes it is stimulating a beautifully complex development process. Let’s free children’s potential by encouraging safe places to play. The most important thing in their world is fun and play. Our office is excited to welcome IKEA co-workers to our programme to witness our wonderful partnership at work.



    Joy Nafungo