Lego offers £100m to find innovations tackling ‘global childhood crisis’

Exclusive: Competition seeks entries supporting children’s play, health and education in wake of Covid pandemic

Lego is launching a £100m competition to find solutions that will make a positive impact on the lives of children in response to what the toymaker said was a “global early childhood emergency”.

The Lego Foundation – the non-profit arm that owns 25% of the Danish company – is offering the 900m Danish kroner (£100m or $140m) prize fund to help children “in crisis” and address the loss of access to services and support, accelerated by the pandemic.

Between March 2020 and February 2021, 167 million children in 196 countries lost access to early childhood care and education services, according to the World Bank. The pandemic closed childcare and early education facilities, meaning caregivers took on the sole responsibility for meeting all their child’s developmental needs.

“Parents struggling to keep a roof over their heads, stressed, working from home, perhaps managing more than one child, have understandably had less time,” said Prof Paul Ramchandani, a child psychiatrist and the leader of the University of Cambridge’s research into the role of play in child development.

“But the most important thing for children’s healthy brain development is engagement with an adult,” says Ramchandani, “so we’re seeing that children’s social and emotional learning has stalled.”

Two recent studies found that cognitive development in early childhood was declining, with babies born during the pandemic down 22 points in IQ, and the loss more pronounced for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We’re living in a world where early childhood development is at crisis point,” said Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, the CEO of the Lego Foundation. “It hasn’t had the investment or the political attention that it deserves. So to mark the Lego brand’s 90th anniversary, we’re making a statement.”

Albrectsen hopes that the “Build a World of Play Challenge” fund will attract proposals addressing emergency issues as well as forward-looking projects. “It could be a tech innovation that will improve the health of families with young children, or a plan to make cities safer, greener, more sustainable, more playful; or ideas for reducing stress amongst caregivers; or help with equal access to education for girls, or for children with disabilities, or for neurodiverse children.”

The Lego Foundation will assess each entry for impact, feasibility, sustainability and bearing on the community and plan to work closely with successful grantees.

Five entries with ideas for the biggest impact will receive grants, with three receiving 200m DKK each (£22.6m) and two awarded 100m DKK each. In addition, the 10 finalists will receive 6.5m DKK each to strengthen their plans and build a team to implement their innovation.

Less than 3% of all humanitarian aid is invested in education, with just a fraction of this in early education, said Sherrie Rollins Westin, the president of Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organisation behind Sesame Street. “We thought at first that children weren’t as vulnerable to Covid 19, at least in terms of the disease. But as time’s gone on, we’ve seen just how much the pandemic impacts children,” she said. “For a large proportion of the under-fives, it’s all they’ve ever known.”

The Lego Foundation is already a significant investor in early childhood philanthropy, according to OECD reports, reaching 62 countries. So why not quietly continue? “Because this is a crisis,” said Albrectsen, “if we give money to the usual suspects, we won’t make such an impact.”

Westin said the foundation’s new prize was “audacious philanthropy”. She added: “In the humanitarian space, the attention of Lego’s investment will attract other investment – highlighting the void, and creating an opportunity to make a real difference.”

  • Editor’s note on 18 February 2022: The author of this article is married to an employee at Lego.

Contributor

Helen Russell in Billund, Denmark

The GuardianTramp

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