Improving Health & Nutrition Through Play

Play not only makes life more fun, but it’s also a time-tested tool for teaching.

By Kate Riesen

When we actively participate and enjoy our experience, the lesson is much more likely to stick with us. Many of our field partners around the world employ this strategy to share important knowledge about health, nutrition, hygiene and more with the communities they serve. Check out some of their innovative approaches here:

Playing Along in Haiti

As our prenatal multivitamin program expands in Haiti, we've observed how some of our field partners are using skits to approach shifting perspectives on traditional beliefs and practices. Last year, before a distribution, women from the community acted out a scenario where one woman found out she was pregnant and another woman encouraged her to go to the clinic to get prenatal care and vitamins.  The “pregnant” woman expressed reluctance, claiming that the vodou doctor already told her what to do. Her reply resulted in uproarious laughter from the spectators, and the second woman telling the first woman that vodou won’t protect her baby, only good prenatal care will. After a little more grumbling, the “pregnant” woman acquiesces, and the two women walk hand in hand to an imaginary clinic. The pregnant woman then expresses gratitude for the services and vitamins she received and says she knows her baby will be healthier because of it.

Grocery Shopping in Guatemala

Our field partners in Guatemala offer community nutrition classes to help educate families about how to make healthy choices and how to stretch their budgets more effectively.  During the sessions, participants pretend to go shopping for groceries. Sometimes they use plastic toy "food," and other times its just paper cutouts. In either case, practicing making nutritious choices makes real-life shopping excursions a healthier affair.

Acting it out in East Africa

In East Africa, skits are a popular learning tool. Before distributions, our partners often facilitate skits where locals will act out a scene related to the day's activities. While the subject matter varies, comedy always plays a vital role, helping participants to address issues that might be uncomfortable or awkward to talk about one-on-one, even with a doctor or social worker. Some of the topics we’ve seen come to life include: proper hygiene practices, choosing nutritious food options at the market, and even navigating marital affairs and family planning.

Ingenuity in Indonesia

Good nutrition goes hand in hand with proper hygiene in terms of preventing illness and infection. Our partners in Indonesia know that music can help with memory and use songs to teach children about hand washing. In one scene we observed, the whole community watched the children perform a song where they practiced the different motions of a thorough hand washing: scrubbing under the nails, getting the backs and front of the hands, and rinsing thoroughly. Since many families do not have running water, our partners developed a simple way to make clean water accessible to everyone by cutting a spout at the top of an old plastic jug from cooking oil and adding a simple foot-powered lever to get the water to pour out without having to touch the jug with your dirty hands. When the song ended, participants took turns using the homemade hand washing device.

Impactful Play in India

One of our partners in India uses the power of participation and the appeal of mentorship to share knowledge. Older children from the community are engaged to teach younger children basic health and hygiene information, and then they test what they've learned through games. Recently our team observed the children playing a game of musical chairs. The participants left standing at the end has to share what they had learned about hand-washing that day with the seated children.

“While the form of play might look different from place to place, one thing is clear, making learning fun helps provide skills and practical experience that set communities up for lasting success.”