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Maggie Kohn headshot

Lego Boosts Education for Children in East African Refugee Camps

The Lego Foundation is on a mission to reshape education for a generation of children in East African refugee camps with a $100 million award to the IRC.
By Maggie Kohn
East African Refugee Camps

The Lego Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the company many of us know from our childhood days – is on a mission to reshape education for a generation of refugee children.

Last month, the Denmark-based foundation awarded $100 million to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to promote play-based, early learning solutions for pre-primary and primary school-aged children impacted by the humanitarian crises in East Africa living in Ethiopia and Uganda, and potentially a third country in the region. The grant builds on a previous $100 million grant Lego awarded in 2018 to Sesame Workshop and its partners BRAC, IRC and New York University to develop, test and scale-up playful early learning solutions for the youngest most vulnerable children, birth to six years of age, impacted by the Syrian and Rohingya crises.

In a press release announcing this latest grant, the Foundation said the five-year project PlayMatters will help strengthen children’s resilience and help build their social, emotional, cognitive, physical and creative skills.

Through PlayMatters, Lego and the Lego Foundation are demonstrating one way the private sector can help address UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 -- Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all – as well as the Global Compact for Refugees’ request for the international community to support governments in finding durable solutions to the  refugee crisis.

Play-time crucial even in crisis situations

Lack of access to food, medicines and shelter – not play time – is often associated with the plight facing the world’s more than 70 million refugees. But experts say that play-based learning is a critical component for childhood learning and building the skills necessary to cope with adversity -- and one that is woefully neglected in crisis situations.

An estimated 31 million children have been displaced and now live in refugee camps. They’ve lost homes and loved ones, seen violence, and endured the kinds of trauma that put them at risk for lifelong impairments. Millions have no access to quality early learning. Yet less than 3 percent of all humanitarian aid goes to education, and only a tiny fraction of that to early childhood.

An article in the American Journal of Play found that it is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules. Play can also teach children how to handle their emotions, including anger and fear. In addition, play can help build the resilience children need to thrive in conflict settings.

“We know that investing in play-based learning interventions is key to addressing toxic stress and trauma for young children in refugee settings as learning through play helps to develop social and emotional skills, builds resilience, and strengthens brain connections essential for future development,” said John Goodwin, CEO of the LEGO Foundation. “The children in these largely forgotten crises in Ethiopia and Uganda deserve the power of learning through play and the hope that it can bring for a bright future.”

Together, IRC & Lego are reaching 800,000 children

IRC, together with local partners and the governments of Ethiopia and Uganda, plan to train approximately 10,000 pre-primary and primary school teachers and education personnel and 170,000 primary caregivers through PlayMatters. They will equip them with play-based solutions that they can integrate in classrooms and at home. In all, IRC and the Lego Foundation hope to improve education outcomes for approximately 800,000 children.

Sarah Smith, IRC’s senior director of education, told TriplePundit that IRC will work with the Lego Foundation to evaluate the success of the initiative and create a program that’s adaptable across Africa and beyond.

“We plan to work with local experts to understand what is working and what is not working, and through this research, we’ll assess progress against our broader goal of educating every refugee child,” said Smith. “Our ultimate goal is to create models that can travel to wherever there are children who aren’t getting the education that they need and deserve.”

Image credit: Embassy of Denmark in Uganda/Facebook

Maggie Kohn headshot

Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.

Read more stories by Maggie Kohn