The Learning Post: insights from UK Aid Direct and UK Aid Match

Play-based learning interventions: an interview with Seenaryo

Episode Summary

In this episode, we speak to Seenaryo's Chief Operating Officer Naqiya Ebrahim about the organisation's play-based learning project in Lebanon. We discuss the progress of the project so far, the merits of play-based learning and how the project overcame the challenge of operating during COVID-19.

Episode Transcription

Gem Clark: Hello and welcome to the Learning Post. A podcast dedicated to sharing insights and learning from the UK Aid Direct and UK Aid Match funds. 

My name is Gem Clark and I’m the Senior Performance and Risk Manager for UK Aid Direct and your host for this episode. 

This episode focuses on Small Charities Challenge Fund grant holder Seenaryo and its play-based learning project in Lebanon. Speaking to Naqiya Ebrahim, Chief Operating Officer at Seenaryo, we discuss the benefits of play-based learning and some of the challenges the project has faced over the last six months. 

Thanks for joining us Naqiya. To start with, please could you tell us a bit about Seenaryo and your Small Charities Challenge Fund project. 

00:51 Naqiya Ebrahim: Thank you for having me Gem. Seenaryo started initially as a community theatre project. In the years after the Syrian Civil War began, we were seeing an influx of refugees entering Lebanon and noticing that the focus of aid was almost exclusively towards satisfying basic needs, food, shelter, healthcare. Now, obviously these things are crucial, but we felt very strongly that there was an urgent need for projects which went beyond these needs. So, projects that support personal development, that foster cohesion between different communities and allow people’s stories to be heard. So, we started running theatre projects in refugee camps and communities and as we gained momentum we were approached by schools who wanted to know if we could do something for them as well and we discovered very quickly that what we were doing in communities was needed and wanted just as much in the classroom. So that’s actually how our project with UK aid came about. 

Our visits to schools led us to design the Seenaryo Playkit which is a library essentially of games, songs, interactive stories, all of which are linked to standard kindergarten curricula and all hosted on a mobile phone app that we’ve developed. So, now we train teachers in how to use the app and the activities within it to support them in getting their children up from their desks and immersed in their learning. 

UK aid is now supporting us to further develop the app as well as to reach more schools and bring play-based learning to thousands more children in Lebanon. 

02:33 Gem: I’m curious about the scale you mentioned, can you give us a sense of scale of this project and where this sits with Seenaryo’s wider work? 

02:41 Naqiya: What’s brilliant about training teachers rather than children is that I can train five teachers to learn how to use play-based learning in their teaching, then each of those teachers are each reaching 25 children at a time, so what’s been really exciting is that now through the Playkit, we’ve reached over 1,000 teachers who in turn are reaching 30,000 children. We work in Jordan as well so this is across Lebanon and Jordan and it’s really exciting to know that we can have that type of scale. 

03:11 Gem: Brilliant. Thank you. Can you give us a bit more information on the benefits of play-based learning? 

03: 20 Naqiya: I think for me the strength of play is the high human interaction which is really crucial for life skills development. I think globally, we are all understanding that life skills for example, communication, collaboration, decision-making, are far more important than the need to boost academic achievement. And in fact you can’t really boost academic achievement without first boosting these types of skills. Before we developed the Playkit, I remember we were invited to visit a kindergarten classroom in the Bekaa Valley which is in the east of Lebanon. And I remember I was struck by seeing all these very small children, sat at their desks, looking up at their teachers with books in front of them. It was astonishing because there was no sense of movement or play, they were there to just sit and listen. Now globally we know that this is not the most productive way to teach children but in certain communities I think that there is still this fallacy that when it comes to learning that your children are well behaved, sitting at their desks and copying from the boards that that’s a productive style of education.   

By complete contrast I visited the classroom of a teacher who had recently been trained in using the Playkit. I forget her name now, annoyingly. But she had a boy in her class hiding under a table, refusing to come out. Now she had told me before I went in that she had been finding it hard in getting this child to engage, cooperate with the other children but that the Playkit activities had been helping. So, she started playing one of our games and it’s called Touch or Jump. She had laid out objects on a line on the floor. All beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. So, if the object began with a letter that they were learning that day, I think it was Ba, the letter B in English children would touch it. If it didn’t begin with that letter, they would jump over it. She had it all set up and the children started playing but my eyes were just glued to this boy who was just sitting under that table. I could see his face slowly becoming curious, he was watching his peers and smiling and eventually he crawled out from under his table and started to join in. 

I really think if you turn learning into a fun, welcoming, engaging environment, children can’t help but come onboard and for me, that is the power of play. 

05:35 Gem: Great, thanks Naqiya. Really, really interesting. I wonder if you could expand a little more on the age ranges that the Playkit targets and rationale around that.   

05:43 Naqiya: Sure, so when we designed the Playkit, we decided to focus on three to eight year olds. The reason for this is that we’ve noticed that this age range is really where the least resources are spent and it’s very strange because actually in early childhood is when you have the most potential for development and to really change the architecture of your brain. I think the Nobel winning economist James Heckman actually said, that for every dollar that a government invests in the education of a child under the age of five, you see a 13% return in gross domestic product so this is when interventions need to be happening. And what’s incredibly surprising is that people believe that anyone can teach kindergarten, you can kind of get a Mum in a room with some children and she does her thing and that’s how it’s treated, when actually it is, I think, one of the hardest age-groups to teach and where we really need to be putting our focus. 

06:46 Gem: Having trained as a Kindergarten teacher myself, I completely agree with you, 100%. I’ve worked with a lot of different age groups and that was by far, the most challenging. And when you put it like that, why does it seem such a radical idea in so many contexts?   

07:01 Naqiya: I don't know the answer to that I. I think you're right and it's important for us not to categorise play as a radical approach. In 1837 I think it was, Friedrich Froebel coined the word kindergarten which means children's garden. So he didn't call his kindergarten a school but rather a play and activity institute. Then 60 years later in the early 1900s you had Maria Montessori who was strongly advocating for play and child-centred learning so these ideas are not new, they’re not radical it's what we've all known for hundreds of years but I think we've become distracted as academic emphasis intensified through the 20th century with a huge escalation of testing but in many ways I think what education experts are circling back to is is what Froebel knew all along in the 1800s it's nothing new.

07:56 Gemma: In a setting like Lebanon, you’ve got a challenging context, your landscape and political and financial instability at the moment. So maybe you could expand a little bit more on why in that particular context this seems like such an effective approach.

08:10 Naqiya: Well, I really think that it is in context like Lebanon where play-based and child-centred learning is kind of most important. You know for a child who is going through upheaval in their lives potentially suffering from toxic stress. To expect them to be able to focus on maths and literacy via wrote learning sitting at their desks is kind of a delusion and I want to clarify, I’m not saying maths and literacy should be left the wayside or that they're not important it is more about how those subjects are taught, what is actually needed to help that child learn what they need to learn. 

I think children in these contexts first and foremost need to learn to self-regulate their emotions and cope with setbacks, and play is really a perfect way to develop those types of skills. When you're following the rules of a game, you're learning to self-regulate. You know, when your team doesn't win, you're developing resilience. With a tactical game your problem-solving and making decisions. I think these skills are especially relevant as we enter a creative economy you know, today's job market is so much less reliant on traditional skills - reading, writing, arithmetic. What we're interested in is creative skills, life skills. I think Forbes says the top ten skills employees will need to include problem-solving which I just talked about, creativity, emotional intelligence, decision making. I think if we want to prepare children in Lebanon to be change-makers in their own life, then play is exactly where we should begin.

09:40 Gemma: Thanks, Naqiya, so the project has been up and running for six months. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced so far and how you overcome them?

09:48 Naqiya: Over the last few months, I think the biggest challenge for any organisation working in education or maybe in any sector has obviously been COVID. School closures have meant that teachers are having to find ways to teach and play remotely. 

Now in our context, getting children on Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings just hasn't been an option. Many of the children that our teachers work with have only one device at home which if I am allowed to generalise normally needs to be used by Dad for work. Electricity cuts in Lebanon have also meant that getting that one device charged and connected to the Internet for a child to be online at a very specific time during the day is practically an impossibility. So, we needed to find a way for teachers to teach a playful lesson without the teacher or children having to be online at a particular time. The best way I think to overcome this was for teachers to send the children videos for them to download and watch in their own time so when that one device is free and they happen to have electricity. 

But we wanted to avoid being in a situation where a child is passively listening and watching a video you know this would obviously go against everything we've been talking about and everything we've been trying to accomplish with the Playkit so I think once we worked that out and we realised we needed to develop a new training. A training which focused on showing teachers how they can design a video lessons which left space for children to participate and play, even though the teacher isn't there to kind of monitor them live and show them what to do. For example, in the video they are not there but they're asking the child “OK go and find objects in your house” and leaving a gap, leaving space for them to go and do this and then once they come back giving them the next set of instructions. We were even giving teachers ideas for saying to the child pause the video, go and do this thing then come back. So really showing them how to craft a lesson that involves play without them being there live and we were really lucky it was successful and it made sure that children were still learning and playing at home. And luckily schools are back in session now and so we're back with normal life Playkit training which is definitely our preference but it's good to know that we have that up our sleeve when needed.

12:05 Gemma: You mentioned that this has been successful, have you measured what success is with this kit?

12:12 Naqiya: We are always going back to the schools that we work with and getting teachers to give us feedback, so we have focus group discussions with all of the teachers that we train. Beyond that we've also been working with an external company to kind of design [inaudible] an M and E tool (monitoring and evaluation) that we've been piloting so teachers are responding to specific questions so that we have metrics that we can measure against in terms of what was happening before the training, and what's been happening post-limitation. We've also been trying to get data from children themselves so we've been using a tool called the *IDELA which measures children's development so there are certain developmental milestones where we will do a series of tests with that child before the Playkit has been used in the classroom and then come back to that same specific child and see how they have developed. It’s tricky, I will say with stuff like that because you can never be sure how much of their development is natural development versus progression through school generally versus actually Playkit impact so it's a tricky thing and I think what we try and do is just make sure we have lots of different points of contact with the school, with the children so that we can continually assess how we’re doing.

13:25 Gemma: Great, thanks for chatting Naqiya. Really, really interesting. How do people find out more if they are interested?

13:33 Naqiya: You can head over to our website spelt S-E-E-N-A-R-Y-O .org, anyone is also welcome to download the Seenaryo Playkit app on the Google Play and Apple stores so do check us out.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Learning Post so you don’t miss our next episode. Thanks for listening.

Note: *IDELA stands for International Development and Early Learning Assessment and it is a tool developed by Save the Children.