Playing your way to work


Today, economic and social well-being in many countries is threatened by high levels of youth unemployment. Yet, companies report that recruiting suitable staff is a challenge. A recent survey of 500 US executives revealed that 92% believe there is a job skills gap. And of that overwhelming majority, nearly half believed the gap was in critical thinking and ‘soft skills’ such as communication, creativity and collaboration. Given this contradiction, isn’t it time to look more carefully at our education systems?

Education is a cumulative process in which each successive year builds upon what has already been learned. The foundation is laid in early childhood. High quality research, tracking children into adulthood over 20 years, reveals that those who benefit from as little as two years of proper early childhood education are less likely to live on benefits, more likely to have a well-paid job and less likely to commit a crime. 

Even more surprising, most experts agree that quality early childhood education is largely about playing. Can investing in playing really improve employability and reduce crime?

At the LEGO Foundation we have been examining that question. Our conclusion is that better early learning is not about learning more or earlier but about developing the skills that underpin learning for an entire lifetime.

Our growing understanding of brain development shows that it is at play that young children best develop their working memory, pattern recognition, eye tracking, language, and fine motor skills that they will need when learning to read and write. Skipping these pre-literacy skills leaves gaps in the cumulative learning process. These gaps can lead to frustration and disengagement, creating the need for much more expensive remedial intervention later on. 

If this is true of literacy, then it is highly likely that some of the “soft skills” that employers seek are also developed in this way. When children negotiate rules for a game, learn to share a ball, or make a paper plane, they are in effect setting down the foundations for the team work, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving that 21st century jobs demand. There is ample hard evidence that these so-called “soft skills” are among the best predictors of success in later life and that these skills are established in early childhood. Academics point to many other cognitive and behavioural skills – self-regulation and executive function, for example – all with a similar message. Playing is one of the most important and effective ways in which children develop critical skills.

Choosing to spend on remedial interventions with older children at the expense of providing more early childhood education is a difficult habit to break. Because learning at this age happens everywhere and all the time, parents need help to understand these issues and provide the right opportunities for their children. More investment is needed in the training of early childhood teachers – too often, early childhood staff are low-paid care workers with a minimum of training in how to nurture childhood development. We need age-appropriate programmes in our nurseries and junior schools, rather than children simply learning earlier and skipping crucial stages as a result.

The social and economic arguments are equally strong. Nobel Prize winning economist James J Heckman’s 2006 study of the issue concluded: “Investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large ... At current levels of resources, society over-invests in remedial skill investments at later ages and under-invests in the early years.”

Common sense and the evidence clearly support this view. Change in the first five years changes everything that follows.



Adecco Staffing US (2014), “State of the Economy and Employment Survey.”

Heckman, James (2006), “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children”, Science Magazine, Vol. 312, American Association for the Advancement of Science, pp.1900-1902.

Heckman, James and Tim Kautz (2012), “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills” NBER Working Paper No. 18121, National Bureau of Economic Research (2012), Cambridge, MA.

Reynolds, Arthur J.; Temple, Judy A.; Robertson, Dylan L.; Mann, Emily A. (2001), “Long-term Effects of an Early Childhood Intervention on Educational Achievement and Juvenile Arrest” in Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 285 (18) p. 2339.

OECD Forum 2014 Issues

OECD work on economy
 and education


‌‌Randa Grob-Zakhary

Randa Grob-Zakhary, Chief Executive Officer, Lego Foundation, and

 Andrew Bollington

Andrew Bollington, Vice President of Research and Learning, LEGO Foundation



©OECD Yearbook 2014




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