Anyone who has watched a child truly absorbed in what they are doing knows what a powerful driver for learning it can be. When a child is engaged, they go deeper in their learning, are self-motivated, and persist at tasks for longer. However, until now, no measurement tools have been available to assess how children are engaged in their learning in classrooms and homes.

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Engagement in learning has been central to a growing interest in learning through play. Advocates argue that when children learn through play, they learn basic skills – such as reading and mathematics – more effectively, and the range of skills they learn is broader, including social and emotional skills as well as academic skills. Our work on the PLAY toolkit was inspired by the interest in play (the clue is in the name) but we shifted its focus to the concept of “engagement in learning” for a couple of reasons. We found that engagement is easier to define and therefore observe. Also, we aimed to develop a toolkit that could be used across contexts and cultures. Through our qualitative work we found that “engagement in learning” was universally valued and understood.

Two years later, we are excited to announce the publication the PLAY (Playful Learning Across the Years) toolkit. This toolkit measures how caregivers and teachers support children’s engagement in learning. It is designed for use with children aged 0-12 and was developed by RTI and NYU Global TIES with funding and support from the Lego Foundation*.

The toolkit measures four ways in which caregivers and teachers can help children engage in their learning.

Exploration: support for children's interaction with things and ideas to expand thought.

Agency: support for children’s ability to influence how and what they learn.

Social and Personal Connections: support for (1) relating learning to children's personal experiences; (2) children learning through social interaction; and/or (3) children feeling a sense of belonging and being socially connected.

Emotional climate: fostering an environment where interactions between adult(s), child(ren), and peers are warm, respectful, and positive.

We developed the tools in three rounds of data collection in each of 4 countries: Ghana, Kenya, Jordan, and Colombia – observing more than 1,000 classrooms and 150 caregiver-child pairs in total. In the first stage we conducted qualitative work to explore local understanding of concepts like ‘engagement’ and ‘learning’. Next, we piloted and adapted the tools. In the final stage we conducted a large-scale psychometric assessment to see how well the tools were working.

In the development process we were keen to include a range of ways to support child engagement that would be relevant across contexts and cultures. For example, under the construct of ‘social and personal connections,’ we measured ‘creating a sense of togetherness’ because teachers in Ghana and Kenya told us that children in their context were engaged in their learning when they felt a sense of togetherness and belonging in the class.

Designing a toolkit to be used across contexts also required sensitivity to a range of levels of support for engagement. The toolkit is not designed only for homes and classrooms packed with experimentation and creativity. For instance, I was struck by my visit to Kenya during the piloting phase. All the classrooms we observed were conventional – with children seated in rows responding to a teacher in front of a blackboard. And yet, there was a wide range of engagement. In some classrooms we saw children bringing concepts to life by acting them out and teachers encouraging questioning and exploration of ideas. These are the interactions the tool is designed to capture.

We have now entered an exciting phase of our work where we support several organizations to use the toolkit and to test its relation to learning outcomes. We also encourage you to explore the PLAY toolkit. It is free to use and comes with lots of supporting documentation and videos on how to use the tools, how to adapt them to context, and how to train assessors. We look forward to receiving feedback as you try them out.

*We are also grateful to our collaborators: Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, Education Assessment and Research Centre and Innovations for Poverty Action in Ghana, the International Rescue Committee in Jordan and Laterite in Kenya as well as advisory boards in each country and an international advisory board.

Photo Credit: USAID PRIORITAS Project

About the Expert

Matthew Jukes's picture
Dr. Matthew Jukes is a Fellow of International Education at RTI International. He has twenty-five years of academic and professional experience in evaluating education projects, particularly in early-grade literacy interventions and the promotion of learning through better health.Dr. Jukes’ research addresses culturally relevant approaches to assessment and programming in social and emotional competencies in Tanzania; improving pedagogy through an understanding of the cultural basis of teacher-child interactions; and frameworks to improve evidence-based decision-making. He is Principal Investigator of the Playful Learning Across the Years (PLAY) measurement project and Research Director of the Play Accelerator research program, both funded by LEGO Foundation. Dr. Jukes is also the Research Director of the Learning at Scale research program. His research also contributes to improving academic and social-emotional learning through RTI’s projects to support the Tanzanian education sector.Previously, Dr. Jukes was an Associate Professor of International Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Global Research, Monitoring and Evaluation at Room to Read. Dr. Jukes has also applied his research to work with the World Bank, UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNESCO, USAID and Save the Children.