Using the form of play for change

What a week it has been!

I’ve come back from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Australia with the feeling of having had a confronting yet powerfully positive experience. Over the last four days, five IKEA co-workers from Australia and I experienced the trip of a lifetime. We witnessed the valuable work of the Special Olympics Young Athletes programme, which is funded by the IKEA Foundation’s Let’s Play For Change campaign.

Our journey took place within the city of Chiang Mai and the nearby Lamphun province, northern Thailand.

The IKEA Foundation has worked with the Special Olympics in this region since 2017. In this time, Special Olympics has been able to implement their Young Athletes programme in Educational Centres across 77 local provinces.

They have seen a huge increase of participation, from 1,500 children who live with an Intellectual Disability to over 4,000 in just one and a half years. This growth has enabled Special Olympics to hire additional staff and support so many more children.

The creation of a Project Manager role funded by the IKEA Foundation has been fundamental in this growth. Chu Chi, who currently holds this role, was previously a volunteer and has been with the organisation since 2006. She works to integrate the programme into the Educational Centres’ existing curricula, along with co-ordinating the training of new educators and the roll-out of the programme.

The rapid expansion of this programme, in order to reach more children living with an intellectual disability, has been successful due to the organisation’s method of application. Supplying the right tools and training to the centres has enabled teachers to adapt their curricula to easily insert the daily modules, focusing on play and sport.

These activities help develop motor skills, literacy and numeracy.


We saw this first hand during our visit to the Special Educational centre in Chiang Mai. Children were seen participating in a sports day obstacle course, with familiar activities including balancing beams for motor stills; and using numeracy/literacy skills to count and call out the colour of the ball when throwing into the basket.

Over the course of our trip it became evident that the true success of the Young Athletes programme wasn’t just at the school; it arms the parents and caregivers with the tools to implement the programme within the home.

A major part of the programme is working with parents and caregivers, who are required to attend the Young Athlete programme for four reasons:

  • to become familiar with the programme
  • to meet and interact together with other families
  • to help supervise the class
  • to encourage the importance of transferring the Young Athletes programme into everyday life.

We saw the success of this way of working when we visited the Lamphun Educational Centre and later at four-year-old Gus’s home.

In this province the school uses a visual tool called a life clock, which is a personalised clock-like diagram with pictures of the child working through their programme at different times of the day.

Using this technique, Gus’s grandparents created his personal life clock and athletic equipment using recycled items from around the home to provide a low-cost sustainable solution.

They made a basketball ring, a balancing beam and a gymnastics frame, which played a significant part to aid Gus in learning to walk. Through this technique and encouraging families to work with the programme at home, the Young Athletes team hope to sustain the programme well beyond the three-year IKEA Foundation funding period, which will end in 2019.

The achievement of this programme has come from more than just one-on-one interactions between the child, the educator and the guardian. In fact, it was apparent that the interactions between families with children both with or without an intellectual disability allowed parental guardians to develop close relationships and provide a community support network; allowing inclusion of all children to learn together both in and out of the classroom.

This connection, overarched by the northern-Thai culture, has led to the enormous expansion of the programme, into remote communities in the Chiang Mai / Lumphun province.

For me it was clear that the Young Athletes programme held a special connection to the IKEA Foundation’s Let’s Play for Change campaign. It demonstrates how powerful the use of everyday play can be to fundamentally impact the lives of people and children living with an intellectual disability.

    Jonathon Bray