Literacy and play: New ways to build peace

Sep 05, 2023
Written by Vongaishe Changamire, Education Technical Specialist, World Vision Canada

In a world marked by conflict, the theme for International Literacy Day 2023 resonates deeply: building sustainable, peaceful societies through literacy. Literacy—the ability to read and write—is more than just a school subject. It's a key skill that shapes our confidence, success, and growth in life. Goal 4 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN aims for everyone to develop this skill by 2030.

But here's the challenge: our world has faced many ups and downs recently, like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, war, conflict and shifts in technology. These changes have made it harder for many, especially children, to learn and practice reading and writing. In fact, the number of 10-year-olds in some countries who struggle with reading jumped from 57 per cent in 2019 to 70 per cent in 2022.

As we approach International Literacy Day on Sept. 8 and the International Day to Protect Education from Attack on Sept. 9, it's time to think about how we can better support everyone's journey to becoming literate in these challenging times, especially children affected by conflict.

Play-based learning emerges as an ideal learning approach to foster literacy of children, especially for those impacted by conflict. Play is more than just an alternative route to learning; it's a transformative tool for education, literacy and wellbeing, cultivating hope amid adversity.

The transformative power of literacy in cultivating peace is multi-dimensional: it enables knowledge acquisition, fosters dialogue, and broadens access to opportunities. Tragically, youth lacking education and literacy skills often face vulnerability to coerced enlistment in armed groups due to limited alternatives. Shockingly, as of 2017, over 100,000 children were forcibly recruited into military organizations across 18 conflicts globally. Surviving child soldiers develop psychological issues, poor literacy and numeracy skills, and behavioral challenges, resulting in heightened unemployment and poverty risks later in life.

Unlocking literacy through play

World Vision Canada, understanding the profound implications of literacy and the benefits of play-based learning, has taken leaps to support these twin causes, especially for those facing the harrowing impacts of conflict and displacement.

At the forefront of this initiative is the Unlock Literacy (UL) model- an innovative approach rooted in evidence-based play learning.  Beyond merely teaching reading, this approach strives to refine classroom reading skills while simultaneously inspiring a passion for reading outside school walls.

Two Ghanaian boys read books together outside.Reading camps foster peer support systems for children learning to read and write, such as through reading buddy sessions like this one in Ghana.

Literacy: A way to healing

In places like northern Ethiopia, where educational systems were disrupted due to conflicts, World Vision Canada’s initiatives offer a beacon of hope. Thanks to a project funded by Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the UL reading camps in Ethiopia adopting play-based learning have been pivotal in improving literacy skills, enhancing well-being, and addressing psychosocial challenges effectively and timely. In these camps, play instills hope, addresses trauma, and fosters robust coping mechanisms for children from age six to 11.

In crisis regions where traditional education faces immense challenges, play has proven to be a universal, holistic approach, pointing to a brighter, more literate future for children.

A teacher bends down to point to a student's book, with a child on her back.
Reading groups often supplement education in areas where school is disrupted by violent conflict. This reading club in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of 20 groups in the area that have helped improve the academic performance of children in a variety of subjects.

Preventing violence through literacy

Extending the reach, World Vision Canada also collaborated in applied research funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre in Ghana, Honduras, and Nicaragua. As a major focus of the Unlock Literacy Learning Network project, the research investigated the role of communities in strengthening literacy—and the results have been remarkable.

In Honduras, UL reading camps have acted as sanctuaries for children, deterring them from violence and gang affiliations. These camps, by fostering social-emotional learning through play-based literacy development, have emerged as major barriers against violence. They prevent the perpetuation of violence and lay the groundwork for lasting peace in communities.

This, in essence, paints a picture of World Vision Canada's holistic vision: a literate, emotionally resilient, and peaceful generation.

During my 2022 visit to El Progresso, Honduras, I had the privilege of witnessing the impact of reading camps implemented by World Vision. El Progresso is a place with its own set of challenges, but what struck me most was the positive change I saw unfolding there.

The dedication of community members, especially volunteers, teachers and faith leaders, was truly heartwarming. They spoke with passion about their commitment to the children, viewing these camps not just as educational ventures, but as tools for molding a brighter future.

A girl reads aloud from a paper in an outdoor learning space.Reading Camps in Honduras are alive with energy, with kids eagerly participating, a clear sign of the positive impact these sessions were having on their lives.

The reading camps offer far more than lessons in literacy. The facilitators shared the deep personal satisfaction they felt, knowing they were making a difference in a place often troubled by issues like violence. In urban areas of El Progresso, these camps have even played a role in keeping older and younger children out of harmful activities, such as gang-related crime. The term 'rechanneling the energies of young children' from one of the facilitators captures this sentiment perfectly.

One aspect that stood out was the community-centric nature of these camps. They are run by local volunteers who understand the community's unique challenges and can communicate in the local language, making the learning experience even more effective. But what stayed with me the most was the atmosphere of the camps. They were alive with energy, with kids eagerly participating, a clear sign of the positive impact these sessions were having on their lives.

Why literacy matters

From classrooms in northern Ethiopia to the streets of El Progresso in Honduras, the impact of these efforts is real and noticeable. Reading camps, run by dedicated volunteers, have done more than just help kids improve their reading abilities; they've also acted as safe spaces, shielding children from violence and uncertainty. These camps have provided children with a space where they can grow emotionally, build up their inner strength, and dream of a future without conflict.

Four Honduran girls smile widely while holding new books.Reading camps in Honduras have acted as sanctuaries for children, deterring them from violence and gang affiliations. These camps, by fostering social-emotional learning through play-based literacy development, have emerged as formidable barriers against violence.

As we come together to commemorate International Literacy Day and International Day to Protect Education from Attack, it's important to remember that supporting literacy goes beyond teaching kids how to read. It's about giving them the tools to become knowledgeable, involved, and strong members of their communities.
By nurturing literacy, we're planting the seeds for a more peaceful and prosperous world, not just for us, but for the generations that will follow.

Read more about our commitment and approach to literacy.