Research – a critical lever for systemic change in ECD and play-based learning. LEGO Foundation. IPASA Newsletter. September 2022.

Research – a critical lever for systemic change in ECD and play-based learning

 By The LEGO Foundation, South Africa

“…Shining the light on the critical issues that impact children and their learning are the foundation of the ability to drive systemic change…” 

The Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Basic Education landscape in South Africa is complex and dynamic. It is also increasingly a priority for the South African government and its private and civil sector partners, as part of a broader global recognition of how investing in early childhood development and foundational learning builds lifelong skills.

Growth and development in the early years form the foundation for future learning, productivity, and wellbeing. The positive role of playful learning is increasingly coming under the spotlight because of the critical skills it helps to develop.

That is why a rising number of organisations are investing in research, partnerships, and programmes to strengthen ECD, and play-based learning, worldwide. For the LEGO Foundation, investments in research and the building of systems are a central part of our strategy to support the sector with much needed data and analysis, but also to understand what interventions have the greatest impact on governments, teachers, caregivers, and children.

Understanding the South African setting and where research fits in

Despite ubiquitous government commitments and intention to improve ECD, challenges remain that prevent adequate progress in improving quality and access to early learning opportunities on the continent and in South Africa specifically. At the LEGO Foundation we aim to support Governments in helping remove some of these barriers.

According to the Statistics South Africa General Household Survey in 2021, the number of children attending an ECD programme is decreasing. This can largely be attributed to the pandemic as it has changed the nature of childcare arrangements. The survey showed that the percentage of children aged 0–4 that remained at home with a parent, guardian, other adults, or children increased from 57.8 % in 2019 to 64.6 % in 2021. During the same time, the percentage of children that attended grade R, pre-school, nursery school, crèche, and edu-care centres decreased from 36.8 % in 2019 to 28.5 % in 2021.

Research and good quality data are key ingredients in the ability to plan for and address the falling number of children attending ECD programmes. Accurate, reliable national data is needed to identify gaps in the access to and quality of Early Learning Programmes (ELPs) in South Africa.

Initiatives supported by the LEGO Foundation

Five of the research-related initiatives led and supported by the LEGO Foundation include:

  1. The South African ECD Census 2021 and ECD Deep Dive
  2. Playful parenting initiatives and research
  3. The Annual Child Gauge of the Children’s Institute at UCT
  4. Scoping out results-based financing opportunities for ECD and Foundation Phase schooling
  5. Supporting world class research institutions

Research in motion: how data and insights are making a difference in South Africa

The good news is that there are initiatives to fund key research projects, with recent examples being the ECD Census and ECD Deep Dive.

The ECD Census 2021 – commissioned by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), funded by the LEGO Foundation, and supported by the collaborative efforts of various stakeholders active in the ECD space – counted all ELPs in the country. Data was collected on 42,420 ELPs that engage over 1.6 million children. It has been the largest effort to map the South African ECD landscape to date and is in fact the first complete mapping of ELPs in South Africa. The Census data has already been used to inform numerous policy decisions for ECD and is a central piece in the Department of Basic Education (DBE) business case to Treasury for a greater allocation of funding to go towards ECD services. Importantly, the information gathered is open-source, available publicly and can be accessed by all stakeholders here.

Initial information and insights gathered in the Census raised further questions, however, and together with the DBE, the LEGO Foundation is carrying out a deep-dive study to understand the quality of the implementation of the National Curriculum Framework in ECD Programmes using a mixed methods approach.

The cumulative data will then be used to build a data management information system for the ECD sector and provide a basic assessment of the enabling environment for quality learning through play. It will enable the South African government, together with partners across these sectors, to develop policies that enhance the quality of ECD and to bring play-based learnings into classrooms and pre-school facilities nationwide. The LEGO Foundation are working with the Education Management Information System (EMIS) Directorate and Ilifa Labantwana to support the build out and piloting of this system.

The lack of accurate data and formality in the ECD sector has long hampered government and civil society’s efforts to harness its full potential. Having a comprehensive and well-maintained ECD database in place, similar to the DBE’s EMIS for schools, will represent a massive step in the right direction in providing greater access to early learning opportunities. Knowing how many ECD services are operating in which parts of the country, and what their challenges are around infrastructure, funding, qualifications, and government support will equip the relevant decision makers in government and civil society to allocate resources more effectively and efficiently.

Playful Parenting – Research on a global scale

The pandemic shone a spotlight on the importance of parenting to support children’s early learning and development, but also on the significant risks associated with harsh parenting and violence against children. The LEGO Foundation recognised the important work being done by the Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH) Consortium led by Oxford University to adapt and roll out playful parenting materials at scale during the global lockdown periods. We were able to support some of this work through a special Covid-19 grant, which allowed PLH to run five concurrent small-scale studies on digital, hybrid and population-level playful parenting interventions.

The PLH interventions are based on a strong existing evidence base for in-person versions of the programmes that are tailored to different age groups – including six randomised controlled trials (considered the gold standard of evidence).

In 2022, the LEGO Foundation gave a grant to the Global Parenting Initiative (GPI), which is led by PLH, to rapidly develop and evaluate playful parenting programmes to improve at-scale child learning outcomes and reduce violence against children. These will be delivered through in-person, remote, digital, multimedia and hybrid platforms to children and families in the Global South. The project includes nine state-of-the-art research-within-implementation studies focused on increasing the evidence of effectiveness and scalability of these programmes. The GPI grant will go to partner universities, organisations and implementers around the world including in South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and the UK.

Research has found that positive parenting is a skill that can be learned to help provide a better childhood, reduce maltreatment and violence, and create a healthier life and better future for children. While poor parenting has been linked to childhood adversities and life-long consequences for physical and mental well-being, positive parenting interventions have many beneficial impacts for children and youth, as well as for their relationships with their caregivers.

The PLH work has been gaining traction globally, but closer to home, it has been featured in key research publications such as the South African Child Gauge.

Advocacy and research publications

The Child Gauge is an annual publication of the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town. It aims to report on and monitor the situation of children in South Africa and covers a different theme each year – with child and adolescent mental health under the spotlight in the 2021/2022 report.

Contributors provide perspectives, insights and research that drives the national dialogue on issues that have a particular impact on children’s rights in South Africa. A case study on PLH provided an overview of the evidence behind their suite of interventions. The LEGO Foundation also contributed a case study on ‘How Play can Promote Self-Regulation in Children’, highlighting the role of play in helping harness a child’s ability to self-regulate. This is a crucial determinant of how they navigate the social world, cope with stressful situations, manage their emotions and mentally course-correct where necessary.

Building bodies of research that shine the light on these and other critical issues that impact children and their learning are the foundation of the ability to drive systemic change.

The Intersection between Innovative Finance and Research

Another area that the LEGO Foundation has developed a growing interest in is how innovative finance mechanisms can be used to unlock more public and private funding for education interventions. There is an important link between research and results-based financing instruments like social impact bonds or development impact bonds. The Lego Foundation is working with the Education Outcomes Fund (EOF), which is hosted by UNICEF, one of the leading organisations in this space, to scope out results-based financing opportunities for ECD and Foundation Phase schooling in a number of countries, including South Africa. There is already a precedent for a Social Impact Bond for ECD in South Africa, and future work can build on the lessons and successes of that project.

Supporting World Class Research Institutions

The Lego Foundation has a strong appreciation for the important work being done by world-leading research units at universities. We have been long-standing supporters of a number of research centres including the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child (HCDC) and the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) centre at Cambridge University. Both of these institutions are at the forefront of research into early learning, often with an emphasis on how play impacts children’s lives. However, we also recognise the importance of supporting world-class research institutions on the continent, and as such, are exploring exciting projects and grants that will build the capacity of these research institutions and support substantial research projects in early learning and innovative classroom pedagogical approaches. These partnerships will be announced in the coming months.

It is only through a robust body of research and evidence that the public and private sectors alike can advance knowledge of the sector, respond to challenges, and formulate solutions to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for the country’s children.


Leading research on Learning through Play are available in the reports and articles below:

Dowd, AJ and Thomsen, BS (2021). Learning through Play: Increasing impact, reducing inequality. The LEGO Foundation. Read it here.

Liu, C., Solis SL., Jensen, H., Hopkins, E., Neale, D., Zosh, J., Hirsch-Pasek, K and Whitebread, D (2017). Neuroscience and learning through play: a review of the evidence. The LEGO Foundation. Read it here.

Zosh, JM., Hopkins, EJ., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale., D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, SL and Whitebread, D (2017). Learning through play: a review of the evidence. Read it here.


Related Posts