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Element of Play: Supporting vulnerable children to develop and thrive through play

Building on our experience with play programming in Haiti, Ethiopia, Bulgaria and Vietnam, we would like to develop ‘Element of Play’, a culturally adaptable model that uses play to support the psychosocial well-being and early development of vulnerable and marginalized infants and children and to promote school readiness, while also strengthening communities and providing learning and volunteering opportunities for unemployed youth and adults.

Photo of Wordlwide Orphans Foundation

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Supporting play in a community is an essential part of developing resilience, social connectedness and psychosocial well-being for all ages. Our idea - Element of Play – combines best practices from WWO’s years of experience in play programming in Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Haiti and Vietnam into a simple and yet profoundly impactful model of play and connection.
The model uses play to support the psychosocial well-being and early development of vulnerable and marginalized infants and children and to promote school readiness, while also strengthening communities and providing learning and volunteering opportunities for unemployed youth and adults.
The toy library is often the first element of play to be introduced into a community setting. As local volunteers receive further training, the toy library transforms into Element of Play: a community space for storytelling, music, art, dance, drama, sports and early learning. Community members, including parents, caregivers, retirees and youth volunteers, receive training on how each play element supports children’s development and resiliency. Community members are trained in the use of child development assessment tools to better understand and support young children’s individual needs. Playfulness is the unifying theme across countries.
The concept
Element of Play creates a protected space for children, youth and adults to gather, Provides capacity building for youth and adults to become volunteers, supports children’s well-being and development through play, and engages the community as a whole.
The model includes:
  • Toy Library: a protected space filled with educational toys and learning materials for children aged 0-7 years and their caregivers. Toys are accompanied by corresponding reference cards with information on five developmental domains (cognition, fine and gross motor, socio-emotional and communication) and examples of how to engage the child in play to support their learning and growth.
  • Music-in-Motion: a structured play opportunity for preschool age children to explore instruments, listen to music and dance
  • Art, drama and storytelling to help children learn about language, movement and self-expression.
  • Sports: an integral part of a healthy childhood and an opportunity to build strength, coordination and self-esteem, while also teaching teamwork and leadership skills. 
Building local capacity is an integral part of Element of Play, which includes multi-level training of toy librarians, youth and adult volunteers, parents and caregivers, as well as a ‘training of trainers’ curriculum to help spread a child-centered approach to children’s development throughout the community. Core training modules cover the following areas: child protection, child development, developmental stages, the importance of play and child-centered play techniques, developmental benefits of music and dance, creating safe spaces and routines for children, supporting resilience and well-being through play, problem solving and critical thinking. Certificates are awarded to all trainees who successfully complete training. Small stipends are provided for training, maintenance of skills and toy librarian positions. Partnerships with local organizations and government are pursued from the early stages to help ensure sustainability. 
Standardized tools are applied to assess progress in children’s development, caregiver knowledge of child development and children’s behavioral and psychosocial wellbeing – and findings feed back into project design and implementation.
Element of Play is adaptable to different cultural, economic, social and political contexts, in both emergency and development settings. In crisis situations, Element of Play can help affected communities tap into the enormous potential of play to help children and families cope with trauma and retrieve some sense of joy and normalcy. As a community-based model, it builds on existing local structures: it can be established in health centers, schools, community centers and associations, local businesses, refugee camps, or as mobile units to reach children in their homes, schools or in neighboring communities where applicable.
Element of Play addresses the issue of play deprivation and social isolation and helps to meet early childhood developmental needs of vulnerable and marginalized children, including orphans and children at risk of abandonment, children living in institutions, children from minority groups, children living in poverty, children with disabilities, and children living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, asylum seeking and refugee children, children in situations of conflict or humanitarian disaster, children in street situations and working children. By addressing the issue of lack of information/ understanding about children’s normal development and behavior among parents, caregivers and other community members, it also helps to promote family reintegration and prevent abandonment of children by families that are living in poverty or are facing other social risks.
Questions for the community:
How can we best support parents, caregivers and communities to encourage a child’s sense of curiosity, discovery and the ability to answer their own questions? 
What is the best way to package these resources and interventions together in a way that is transferable across cultures?

Who will benefit from this idea and where are they located?

Element of play would benefit directly vulnerable and marginalized children 0-7 years of age – including children without parental care, children in institutions, children living in poverty, children with disabilities, children from minority groups, asylum seeking and refugee children, children in situations of conflict or humanitarian disaster, children living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, children in street situations and working children – and their caregivers, families and communities. We would initially target vulnerable and marginalized children in Yeka Sub City in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where WWO has an established presence and implementation capacity and where individual components of the model are already in place. However, the model is global in scope. The idea is to create an interactive and dynamic community-based model that can be adapted to serve vulnerable and marginalized children and communities in different cultural, economic, social and political contexts.

How could you test this idea in a quick and low-cost way right now?

Building on WWO’s experience with play programming in Haiti, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Bulgaria, we would: 1) Convene a meeting with local communities and child service providers in Yeka Sub City (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) to discuss our intentions and areas of interest and to seek their inputs and support. 2) Conduct a needs assessment in the community (assess e.g. how much time children spend playing; who they play with; where do they play; what is the level of understanding of child development among parents and caregivers; what are the actors working with children/ providing services for children in the area; what type of services are provided; etc) in order to identify needs, potential partners and specific locations/ structures for implementation of the project. We have had success rolling out toy libraries and/or other components of ‘Element of Play’ in the communities served by our organization and are confident that we will be able to successfully identify partners, volunteers and suitable community/physical structures for the project. 3) Conduct a 3 day Play Workshop with pre-identified volunteers, caregivers, trainers and partners and solicit feedback from participants. The purpose of the workshop would be to connect with the local community and to gauge their interests, the potential benefits of the project and to gather their inputs in order to inform project design and implementation.

What kind of help would you need to make your idea real?

We would need help with: - Design: new and creative ideas on how to package Element of Play, including affordability, adaptability, quality, and format of the model - Ideas of different contexts and communities whose needs could be served by Element of Play

Is this an idea that you or your organization would like to take forward?

  • Yes. I am ready and interested in testing this idea and making it real in my community.


Join the conversation:

Photo of An Old Friend

Hi WOF! Our team in are interested in collaborating with you to prototype and possibly implement your model here in Uganda. Bettina, Anne-Laure and myself believe these two ideas complement each other. We are interested in hearing your take on this proposed collaboration!

Thanks, Alex!

Photo of Wordlwide Orphans Foundation

Thanks, Alex! We'd be interested in hearing more about your organization and your ideas for collaboration. Could you say in a few words what the main components of of your idea are? Are you already working in the community? How do you see us fitting in with your project?

Photo of Guy Viner

Interesting share! Are you currently affiliated with or partnered with an organization that can implement this idea?

Photo of Guy Viner

Here's a friendly tip: update your OpenIDEO profile so folks can dig who they're collaborating with. Think skills, experience, passions & wit! Looking forward to seeing more of you across conversations on this challenge...

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Guy. This post is sponsored by the World Wide Orphan Foundation. They are doing amazing work in several low income communities around the world. I posted a research post about their use of Toy Libraries as a tool to teach child development to guardians as well as to enhance a child's development. They have developed a tool to be used with the toy libraries/librarian. It is great stuff! Here is the link.

Hi Taciana!
This IDEA, Element of Play, has several different components from your description above. (beyond toy libraries on their own). I am excited to learn more about your idea as this process moves forward!

Great prompt to have them open up their profile here so folk learn about them!

Excited to see this proposal guys!

Photo of Wordlwide Orphans Foundation

Thank you both for your comments and suggestions! I just updated our profile. It now includes a brief outline of our mission and work with orphans and at-risk children in low-income communities in Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Haiti, Serbia and Vietnam - and links to our website so folks can learn more about our work.

I also attached one pagers on the different components of our idea - Global Arts, Music in Motion, Sport and Toy Libraries.

This is very exciting and we look forward to collaborating with the community!

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard


this is a really interesting idea and it seems that you've already a lot of experience in experimenting with the Toy Library. I can see its value and impact. I'm unclear what is the exact relation between Element of Play and the Toy Library. Do you see the Toy Library as one component of the Element of Play which as you say might include other things like sports, Music, etc.
I was reading in Bettina's post on your program about the involvement of elder people as working in the toy library and I thought it was really a great idea, in particular as a few of the research posts have discussed the possibility to create links between generations.

On sports, do you know the Magic Bus? they have a great program?

I also think you should check out Alex' s idea as I can see your idea being complementary to his program:

I was also wondering if you considered having a mobile version.
See for example:

Check also this program which seems to offer some of the activities you are also envisioning for Elements of Play:

This could also be a good way to prototype your idea before getting the support for finding spaces and volunteers in different communities.

Thanks Bettina for pointing me to this idea.

Photo of An Old Friend

Great idea.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi all.

I think a mobile version is a great idea as a prototype. WWO have you ever used a mobile version in this way? Might be a way to draw attention to your ideas and get feedback.

I with you A= L re: the multigenerational aspect of the work is a great idea and resource for a community. Also can inviting parents and grandparents to join Element of Play together, with the children, be an opportunity to learn and bridge any generational differences they may have in child rearing?

Check out this mobile learning center that has been developed as a tool to empower and elevate self esteem in street children. The learning center is facilitated on site by adult street workers.

You mention in your post that some of the elements of this program are already in progress in Yeka Sub City. What elements? How has the community responded? Did you discover anything unexpected, anything different from your work in other locales?

It would be great to see some of the Toy Library, toy corresponding reference cards. They sound like an amazing tool. Can you post a few photos of these?

Photo of Wordlwide Orphans Foundation

Thank you all for your comments!

Hello Anne-Laure, and thanks for the questions and suggestions.

As you mention in your comment, the toy library is one of the components of Element of Play - often the first to be introduced in a community and the one around which other components are structured. For example, Music in motion sessions can take place at the toy library; our mobile approach, which is currently being used in Haiti and Bulgaria, includes visits by toy librarians and other ECD professionals who bring toys to children in the community, at their homes, to groups of children who gather in one location to play, participate in music in motion and other global arts sessions, etc.

Thank you for sharing the links! Although we do not work in India and do not have a partnership with the Magic Bus, we seem to share the goal of developing life-skills. Very interesting program!

Re. Alex's idea, we would love to hear more from him about his organization and how he plans to implement the idea and to make it sustainable, and also what role he sees for Element of Play in Uganda. I replied to his comment and a looking forward to hearing from him.

As I mentioned above, we do have a mobile version of the toy library. We do not charge fees from families/ communities. The WWO toy libraries have a strong child development component. They include resources and training to address play deprivation among vulnerable children, and to serve as resource to increase understanding of early childhood development among caregivers and others in the community, to increase attachment and help to prevent abandonment, especially among poor and marginalized populations.

Hi Bettina, thanks again for the suggestions and connections!

We agree that the multigenerational aspect of the work is very important for the children and communities. In Bulgaria, we work with older women in the community who work on a one-on-one basis with orphans and at-risk children; and in Haiti, we work with youth volunteers from the community, who receive training and become mentors and provide support to the children. Not only the children, but also the youth benefit from this program, as young people have an opportunity to become role models, earn a small amount of money as a volunteer, and have a healthy and constructive opportunity to be part of a group and to give back to their family and community.

Re. the elements of the program that are in progress in Ethiopia, we currently have the Sport Program with a soccer league that includes children from local orphanages and from schools in the community, and the Global arts program. No toy library yet. I am attaching a one pager with more information on our work in Ethiopia.

I am attaching a photo of toy reference cards.

Hope I've answered all your questions!