© Blog First Steps, IDB´s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Marta Rubio Codina 

recycled material

A few days ago, I attended the event “Transforming the Future Starts in Childhood,” organized by the IDB and the ALAS Foundation. I enjoyed a very pleasant and rewarding day listening to academics, policy makers and representatives from foundations, international agencies and private-sector entities committed to early childhood development talk about one of my favorite topics: making learning fun.

Several presentations focused on play, an extremely important aspect to promote child development. Play—whether free or intentional, with or without toys—enhances a child’s ability to solve problems and overcome challenges, develops communication skills, and promotes language production and imagination.

During one of the presentations I enjoyed the most, Randa Grob-Zakhary, president of the Lego Foundation, reminded us that the brain reaches 90% of its adult size by the time a child is four years old! Besides being quite entertaining, I thought her presentation was particularly stimulating. With six colorful Lego bricks, Randa demonstrated play’s potential in both the development of the skills mentioned above in early childhood and more advanced skills such as cooperation, executive function, and pre-math and basic statistics skills in preschool-age children. And all this while the audience had a good time playing and learning!

I particularly applaud the simplicity of the pieces she used to demonstrate her message: different colored rectangles, readily reproducible with scraps of wood, matchboxes, or any other materials tiny enough for a small child to be able to manipulate them. There’s beauty in simplicity, all the more so when resources (in other words, money) are limited and needs abundant, particularly among highly vulnerable and marginalized families.

The promotion of early childhood development will not become a public policy that targets those most in need (which is to say that it will not succeed in closing existing socio-economic gaps at scale) if initiatives are not sufficiently cost-efficient. We know that the returns on investment in the early years are very high—although not immediate—which generates certain political difficulties in the face of myopic voters. But the main difficulty still lies in finding a sufficiently inexpensive way to implement these policies so that they will be adopted by governments, and more importantly, be sustainable in the longer term.

Several factors play an important role, but without a doubt, the use of simple and inexpensive toys that can easily be built from the plentiful waste or other materials available in the child’s immediate environment (plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and tubes, scraps of clothing, seeds or stones, etc.) significantly contributes to reducing purchasing costs and distribution logistics. They also facilitate the family’s ability to recreate these toys at home at a minimal cost and to take ownership fitting them to their needs. Homemade toys simply need to be – other than easy to assemble – safe, suitable to the child’s little hands and abilities, and attractive enough (colorful, noisy, etc.). Also, the more versatile—in other words, the more things the child can play with the toy —the better! (The more cost-efficient!)

Thus, in this age of digital technology, I am reclaiming the virtues of homemade toys, based on the evidence generated by the famous Jamaica study, which Norbert Schady spoke to us about in the presentation you can view in the video below.

On the basis of this evidence and on the pride with which the child in the photo shows off his car made from a bottle of liquid soap and a driver made from a sock, I’ll take this opportunity to make a claim for the power of toys made from recycled materials!

Marta Rubio Codina is a consultant in the Division of Social Protection and Health at the Inter-American Development Bank and a Senior Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London. She is a co-researcher in various projects that promote early childhood development (ECD) in  Colombia, India and Peru  and has done research focused on the measurement of ECD and existing socioeconomic gaps. 

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