South Sudanese refugee children play with locally made hand puppets in Yumbe district, Uganda.

Homemade Toys Help Refugee Children Learn

UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly all over the world to save and protect children. 


By 2050, an estimated 42 percent of the world's new babies will be born in Africa. UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation want to make sure every child gets the best start in life, so they've teamed up to provide babies and children around the world with plenty of opportunities to play and learn, donating educational materials and training parents, teachers and caregivers to support young children as they grow.

There are 35,000 3- to 6-year-olds growing up in Bidi Bidi — the world's second-largest refugee settlement — in northern Uganda's West Nile region. Their families fled escalating violence and hunger in South Sudan. Play materials and money are scarce, but ingenuity and the need to play are universal. With funding from the LEGO Foundation, UNICEF-supported instructors are teaching parents and caregivers how to make their own creative playthings: handmade ABC blocks, cardboard books, puzzles, puppets, shape sorters and more. 

South Sudanese refugee children play with locally made toys at Bright Early Childhood Center, Yumbe District, Uganda.

The homemade educational play materials — including locally made clay, handcrafted beads for stringing and brightly painted stacking cups — replicate those found in UNICEF's Early Childhood Development (ECD) kits. By mid-2018, volunteers had completed 60 kits for each of four Early Childhood Development Centers at Bidi Bidi, reaching nearly 2,500 children. 

Led by UNICEF-supported instructors, caregivers make educational toys at St. John Bosco Primary Teachers College in Londonga, Uganda.

At a workshop at St. John Bosco Primary Teachers College in Londonga, Uganda, UNICEF-supported instructors teach parents and caregivers how to make simple picture books that will spark the curiosity of infants and young children. 

"Play is paramount for all children's healthy development and fostering the breadth of skills they need to navigate a complex and uncertain world," says Sarah Bouchie, Head of Learning Through Play in Early Childhood at the LEGO Foundation. "We know that play is a critical means for alleviating trauma and building resilience, and that engaging in play-based activities with responsive caregivers will ultimately help to give vulnerable children a better path forward." 

A kit of educational toys made by South Sudanese with low-cost materials thanks to UNICEF training.

A kit of engaging educational toys made by South Sudanese refugees in Bidi Bidi includes homemade number tiles, beads for stringing and a counting circle that helps children recognize the meaning of numbers and learn how addition and subtraction change numbers. 

South Sudanese refugee baby playing with locally made sponge ball in Uganda's Yumbe district.

In early childhood, children's brains can form 1,000 neural connections every second, the building blocks of every child's future. UNICEF ECD play materials are specially designed to stimulate young minds and promote healthy emotional development. Bouncy sponge balls encourage movement, muscle strengthening and dexterity. Homemade hand puppets give children a chance to practice empathy and storytelling skills. 

Ugandan caregiver Dalla Alli, 28, shows locally made cardboard books to South Sudanese refugee children in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.

Sharing books with parents and caregivers helps children develop a lifelong love of reading. Ugandan caregiver Dalla Alli, 28, shows homemade cardboard books to South Sudanese refugee children in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.

Shape sorters made with low- or zero-cost materials by UNICEF-trained caregivers in Uganda's Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.

Locally made shape sorters train infants' hand-eye coordination, control in handling objects and understanding of spatial orientation. 

Emergency settings, poverty and inequality have a profound negative impact on children's developmental outcomes. Globally, one in 11 children age 6 or younger has spent the most critical period of brain development growing up in conflict. Play can be a powerful strategy to help traumatized children regain a sense of normalcy and, in the long run, build more peaceful societies. 

Since 2015, the LEGO Group, the LEGO Foundation and UNICEF have collaborated to improve children's lives through the promotion of quality early play-based learning in 48 countries. Leveraging private-sector core business operations, skills and know-how, UNICEF's partnerships with companies and foundations can be a game changer for making a bigger impact on the well-being of children around the world.

Learn more about how creative play wires young children's brains for a happy, healthy future — and the Africa Play Conference co-hosted by UNICEF, the LEGO Foundation, the Department of Basic Education in South Africa and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa.


For over 70 years, UNICEF has been putting children first, working to protect their rights and provide the assistance and services they need to survive and thrive. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world. 

Top photo: South Sudanese refugee children practice their storytelling skills with locally made hand puppets at the Bright Early Childhood Center in Uganda's Yumbe district. All photos © Michele Sibiloni for UNICEF

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