The Case for Edutainment
Learning does not follow a linear pathway, especially in the 21st century. The world is facing many challenges: The COVID-19 pandemic, a learning crisis, climate change, conflicts, displacement and rapid economic change. Never before has it been so vital to equip young people with knowledge and the full range of skills to adapt to the ever-changing environment, stay resilient, and empower them with the tools to build the world that they envision. The critical question is: Can we solely rely on schools to prepare the future generations for all that is yet to come?
Part of the answer to this question can be seen in the global response to the pandemic, where formal schooling methods had to be revisited and diversified, with low- and high-tech alternatives coming centre stage at an unprecedented scale. While TV, radio and mobile phones have been invaluable tools to provide remote learning, the reality is that in most cases children and young people have used these technologies for other purposes too, such as entertainment and gaming.
The evidence speaks for itself.
Many children are accessing the Internet at younger ages. Some preschoolers in OECD countries are introduced to Internet-enabled devices before books.
Children are engaging online for entertainment, communication and learning. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand most children use social media primarily for entertainment, communication and information-searching, with many users managing multiple accounts. Gaming among various socio-economic groups is also popular. In 11 countries taking part in the Global Kids Online study, watching videos or playing games are among the most popular online pastimes for children. Moreover, one fifth to two fifths of children in these countries are ’information-seekers’, partaking in such activities as searching for information online about work or studies, looking for news, and more.
TV and radio still hold a prominent role in reaching a majority of the world’s children. Children in poor households in Georgia, Iraq, Kyrgyz Republic, Montenegro and Tunisia have access to TV. In The Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Suriname, more than 50% of school-age children can access a radio.
This raises the next question: How can we direct what we know about children’s online and offline behaviours into positive change and impactful learning opportunities at scale? Sesame Street is a well-known example of linking entertainment and learning. In the United States, rigorous evaluations conducted when the TV show was initially introduced provided evidence that watching it generated an immediate and sizeable increase in test scores for children. Later studies have indicated that watching Sesame Street increased school-readiness, especially for children living in disadvantaged areas.
Recognizing the immense potential of such programmes, UNICEF has long led and supported landmark edutainment initiatives. For example:
In the Dominican Republic, a soap opera – La Peor Novela – tells the stories of two girls, Kenia and Paola, living in rural and urban areas, forced to marry older men based on their circumstances. These characters reflected the lived experiences of thousands of Dominican adolescent girls. Ultimately, La Peor Novela reached 24 million people and contributed to making child marriage illegal in the country.
In Lao PDR, My Village and My House consist of locally produced story books and TV series that focus on early childhood development, promoting knowledge acquisition and skills development. Aimed at all children, including ethnic minorities and children with disabilities, they have received strong support from the Government with the YouTube channels garnering more than 3.2 million views. During COVID-19 school closures, these programmes were made available through Khang Panya Lao – the Lao Learning Passport platform – to encourage continued learning and school readiness.
In Jordan, 1001 Nights Civic and Peace Education Program consists of comic books, an animated TV series and a curriculum centered on the importance of literacy, education, life skills and civic values, human rights, gender equality and more, for children at Syrian refugee camps and learning centres. As a result of this initiative, negative attitudes dropped by 30%, particularly among at-risk children.
In South Asia, the Meena initiative – consisting of comic books, animated TV and radio series – was the product of the Decade of the Girl Child and UNICEF’s way to inspire girls, their families and communities. As Meena, the title character, goes on adventures, she tackles many obstacles and themes, including child rights, gender equality, education, development and more. Meena was based on UNICEF outreach to 10,000 children to create a character that spoke to their lives. In Bangladesh alone, Meena is recognized by 97% of urban and 81% of rural children and adolescents.
As impactful and engaging as these initiatives can be, edutainment cannot be truly effective in isolation. To ensure edutainment brings about desired outcomes and addresses specific learning objectives, the engagement of facilitators, teachers and parents with children is key. At the same time, designing programmes focusing on the needs of marginalized learners should remain a priority. Fortunately, with emerging technologies, platforms, functionalities, and capabilities, reaching all learners and providing varied, fitting and engaging learning opportunities at scale are ever-growing, within and beyond classroom walls. A combination of technologies, with printed materials, such as radio, TV, social media, games and videos can be leveraged to create collaborative and personalized experiences to support skills development, even in low-tech environments.
While much is ahead, one message stands out: Edutainment can act as a powerful and complementary vehicle to reach children where they already are, and address important, diverse and relevant themes that may not be taught at schools or discussed at homes, through a wide range of pathways and technologies. The upcoming Transforming Education Summit 2022 provides an occasion to consider this approach, rethinking how we can enable multiple pathways to learning for all children.