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How Teachers in Rwanda Are Discovering the Power of Play

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More than two dozen educators are gathered in a primary school in rural Rwanda. They stand in a circle. In the middle of the circle, a Right To Play trainer leads them in an energizer activity to build group connection, boost energy, and sharpen their focus. A little play to improve learning—the very reason they’re here.

The teachers are registered in the Learning Through Play course, a new and innovative teacher training program offered by Right To Play in partnership with Rwanda’s Ministry of Education, the University of Rwanda College of Education, the Rwanda Basic Education Board, and the National Examination and School Inspection Authority What makes the program innovative is the fact that the training is offered partly online, and partly in person – the first blended course focused on play-based learning in Rwanda.

The goal of the course is to give teachers of grades 1 to 3 the practical training and tools they need to use playful approaches in the classroom to boost children’s engagement, learning and development. The program was developed with the support of the LEGO Foundation and designed in partnership with PEDAL at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge University Press & Assessment, and the Pedagogy of Play Project from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. More than 3,300 teachers are participating in the pilot phase. When they’re done, they’ll make learning fun and playful for 159,000 students nationwide.

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Teachers enrolled in Learning Through Play, a blended course being offered in Rwanda.

Responding to Rwanda's Educational Needs

While Rwanda has a high primary school enrollment rate, delivering quality education and achieving high learning outcomes remains challenging. These are not issues unique to Rwanda — it’s estimated that by 2030, more than one billion children globally will lack the skills they need to thrive. Most of these children live in low-income countries, where 92% risk reaching adulthood without basic academic skills like literacy and numeracy, and holistic skills like communication, self-expression and confidence.

In 2015, Rwanda introduced a new national competence-based curriculum (CBC) to address this gap, emphasizing the need to support children to develop both the academic and the holistic skills they’ll need to succeed in school, community, and in life. Play has emerged as an essential tool to support students to excel. Teachers who are trained in how to support learning through play are better able to create fun and engaging environments that harness students’ curiosity to help them learn skills like reading and writing and practice essential social, emotional and cognitive competencies like cooperation, goal-setting, problem-solving, and resilience.

Research by the LEGO Foundation and Harvard's Pedagogy of Play Project at Project Zero underscores the manifold impacts of learning through play. Play in early childhood classrooms is linked to improved learning in traditional subjects such as math and science and to long-term academic gains. This may be because play makes learning more enjoyable, and studies suggest that enjoying school strengthens a child’s motivation to learn. It also contributes to developing crucial holistic skills that prepare children for social relationships and the challenges of adolescence and adulthood.

But despite its proven power in the classroom, play remains an underused pedagogical tool due to a number of barriers, including a lack of quality training for educators.

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The Opportunities and Drawbacks of Tech

The idea to develop an online course for teachers in how to bring learning through play approaches into the classroom emerged out the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of 2020 lockdowns, 1.6 billion children were out of school worldwide. All Right To Play in-person teacher training was suspended. Governments and organizations around the world began experimenting with virtual approaches to teaching, and began to better understand the pros and cons of mixing education and tech.

Rwanda’s national strategic focus on information and communications technology (ICT) made it particularly open and interested to the idea online learning platforms and building digital literacy. In an effort to improve teachers' digital skills and increase access to teacher professional development, the government created an LMS to serve as an e-learning portal for all teachers. “We saw an opportunity to use technology to reach and train more teachers in learning through play while building their digital capacities,” says Rodgers Kabamba, Right To Play Rwanda Program Manager.

But everyone involved also understood that it would be impossible to replace the value of in-person connection.

“We saw an opportunity to use technology to reach and train more teachers in learning through play while building their digital capacities.” - Rodgers Kabamba, Right To Play Rwanda Program Manager

After consulting with teachers and government and academic partners, it became clear that while developing an online teacher training course offered clear advantages, including scalability and removing some barriers to access, it also had its drawbacks. Access to online training is limited by barriers such as digital/ICT skills and reliable access to technology and connectivity. Blended training, on the other hand, is a more equitable and effective model that leverages the strengths of both face-to-face and online delivery. A decision was made to develop the Learning Through Play course as a “blended” course – a course that combines online and face-to-face elements to maximize teacher learning, connection, and continued success.

“We know that technology has a role to play in supporting teachers at scale but translating this potential to impact requires a lot of alignment — from working devices and incentives, to culturally relevant content, curriculum alignment, ongoing tech support, linguistic accessibility and so much more. This project will make an important contribution to our global educator knowledge base around how to leverage the power of technology to support teachers and improve learning at scale,” says Julia Citron, Head of EdTech at Cambridge University Press & Assessment.

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Teachers participate in a playful energizer to get them ready to learn.

Co-Developed with Teachers

It’s not just about the students and curriculum. While the potential for learning through play is universal, it’s shaped by culture and context — which is to say, by teachers themselves.

Among Right To Play’s partners in developing this course, the diverse and representative group of 30 lower primary teachers from across Rwanda was perhaps the most important. They provided insight into the course structure, tested the materials, and gave feedback so that the content would be relevant to the real-life context of a local classroom. The result is a course designed with Rwandan teachers and tailored to meet their needs.

Open to all lower primary teachers working at Right To Play partner schools as well as education officials, the course is comprised of an in-person orientation session followed by two online training modules, each with five units that participants complete over 10 weeks. The first module covers the overarching concept of play, its importance as a learning methodology, and other general topics about its classroom use. The second module explores optimizing subject-specific learning through play, guidance for lesson-planning, and how to advocate for play in the broader school and community. Throughout and after the course, participants benefit from the support of communities of practice facilitated by school-based mentors — select educators who receive enhanced Right To Play training to provide ongoing local coaching to participants at their school. These mentors facilitate communities of practice at each school that support continued learning.

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Teachers who helped to design and test the course were awarded with certificates to celebrate their contributions.

“ “We are the only organization offering an accredited certificate for lower primary teachers on how to incorporate learning through play into teaching and curriculum,” says Elisée R. Nshimyumuremyi, E-Training and Certification Project Officer, Right To Play Rwanda. “It’s our goal to improve how lower primary teachers teach by implementing scalable, playful training that builds their capacity to deliver the competence-based curriculum and make their classrooms joyful and engaging.”

Thomas Habumugisha, a 12-year teaching veteran in Western Rwanda and a school-based mentor, says he’s experiencing remarkable impacts.

“The training has been beneficial to improving my digital skills, literacy skills and knowledge, the improvement of my classroom management, and in helping learners to be engaged in lessons joyfully,” he says. “I expect a lot of changes as teachers are introduced to the e-learning platform.”

“The training has been beneficial to improving my digital skills, literacy skills, and knowledge."– Thomas Habumugisha, teacher

Teachers and learners inspired

The first cohort of teachers began in October 2023. After just a few months of training, the many changes Thomas predicts are already being observed in both teaching and learning outcomes.

“The course has helped our teachers to understand the importance of play in their teaching and learning process,” says Safari Theophile, Head Teacher at a primary school in southern Rwanda.

“We have seen changes in how learners have become actively engaged and motivated while using games; classroom management is accurate, and learning objectives are being well achieved.”

With more inspired teachers, there will be more inspired students with the skills and curiosity to be lifelong learners who will in turn inspire the next generation.

The Learning Through Play teacher training is made possible thanks to the support of the LEGO Foundation.

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