Child-Development Experts: Elevate Play to Combat Racism and Inequity

Racism harms the health of children. To give all kids a fair chance to thrive, we need to focus on erasing inequities in education, housing, healthcare and other societal structures. Elevating playful learning, particularly in early childhood, should be an important piece of the solution.

These are some of the key takeaways from a virtual panel discussion Minnesota Children’s Museum hosted Nov. 30.

The event, titled “Reducing Inequality Through the Power of Play,” featured three child-development experts who spoke about the urgent need for action in addressing the negative effects of racism and inequality on children’s health, as well as the role that playful learning can take in making a positive impact on a child’s growth and development.

Below are some of the highlights and key takeaways from each panelist.

Dr. Jacqueline Douge – Pediatrician, writer and speaker; founder of What is Black and co-author of an American Academy of Pediatrics statement on racism and child health.

  • Racism impacts the health of all children, not just children of color.
  • Race itself is not the determinant of health inequity; rather, it is structural racism. Both factors need to be addressed so that kids can all develop and adopt optimal health and wellbeing.
  • The impact of racism on children runs deep. Racism impacts home life and structure, increases risk of depression and asthma, infiltrates the education and judicial systems and affects children’s access to housing, food and safe places to play.
  • Ensuring play for all is crucial in early childhood for a host of reasons, especially because it positively contributes to the development of self-esteem, physical ability, cognitive processing and other early skills.
  • “Play is an opportunity to build the social and emotional well-being of a child.”

Bo Stjerne Thomsen, PhD – Vice president and chair of learning through play at the Lego Foundation; Co-author of the 2021 report “Learning Through Play: Increasing Impact, Reducing Inequality.”

  • A review of studies and playful learning interventions from around the world showed that while many countries saw huge gaps in opportunities, children across the board still prioritized play, even in disadvantaged communities such as refugee camps and impoverished neighborhoods. Despite this, play tends to be neglected as a priority.
  • Researchers at the Lego Foundation sought to determine whether play had a role in addressing inequalities among children. Throughout 18 countries, it was shown again and again that play supports disadvantaged children in building knowledge and skills at the same rate it does for children from more privileged backgrounds.
  • Powerful play for children includes physical activity, being given the chance to make decisions and opportunities to practice trial and error. It also includes a balance between adult guidance and free, imaginative play, or what Thomsen calls “partnering in play.”
  • “What if play was a mechanism to support the holistic skills and knowledge of children? It’s something that’s in front of us, but we fail to embed it into our policies and our interventions. Play supports well-being, it supports knowledge and concept development—it supports a wide range of skills.”

Dr. Nathan Chomilo – Twin Cities internist and pediatrician; equity advocate and champion of how physicians and health systems can address racial and health equity.

  • As the child of an immigrant, Chomilo grew up believing the “myth of meritocracy,” or that achievements are based on hard work alone. But meritocracy is proven to be a myth when children face the multi-faceted, detrimental effects of racism in early childhood. “This is not an achievement gap, this is an opportunity gap.”
  • Reframing the educational “achievement gap” as an “opportunity gap” places the onus on the system to change, rather than putting the focus on meeting standardized outcomes and pressuring children to attain certain scores on a test.
  • The opportunity gap framing also asks us to think about children and students holistically. For example, if students are showing up to school without breakfast, without stable housing or without access to medical care, they are already at a disadvantage compared to their more affluent peers.
  • Chomilo urges educators, parents and especially medical professionals to address structural racism where they are, rather than waiting for systems to catch up.

To watch a video recording of the full virtual discussion and get tips on supporting play for all children, visit

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