Embracing Playfulness and Frugality: Transforming Education for Social Resilience

In a world where education plays a crucial role in shaping the future, innovative approaches are needed to address the challenges faced by communities around the globe. The ACES project which stands for A Community Centred Educational Model for Developing Social Resilience through Play was a pioneering initiative (Feb 2020 – Jan 2023) funded by the UKRI-ESRC under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). This project focused on investigating the impact of transformative education through playful approaches and experiences, with the aim of developing social resilience among young people in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), the ACES project offers valuable insights into the power of playful learning and its potential for global education.

Resilience lies at the core of the ACES project, encompassing the ability to anticipate, cope with, and recover from challenging situations. The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably highlighted the importance of absorptive, adaptive, and transformative resilience. Throughout the project, educators and learners demonstrated remarkable resilience by adapting to online learning and exploring new ways of delivering education. However, it is essential to acknowledge that developing resilience relies not only on individuals but also on education policy, resources, and the physical and digital spaces where learning took place.

Universities, as anchor institutions for change, played a significant role in the ACES project. By collaborating with communities, these institutions mobilised support through co-creation and shared ownership, building trust, and engaging a wide range of stakeholders (see Wimpenny, Arnab, Mohamad et al., in press). This approach went beyond traditional teacher-student dynamics, transforming educators into community brokers and powerful agents of change. By recognising the autonomy and competences of educators and valuing their contributions, the ACES project actively linked young people to local and global concerns, fostering a sense of purpose and engagement.

The project emphasised the importance of both physical and digital spaces in supporting active and playful learning. Creating adaptable and flexible environments for learning was a central aspect of the ACES project’s approach to space. By providing safe and opportunity spaces that encouraged experimentation, the ACES project promoted creativity, curiosity, and active engagement. Co-creation, adaptability, flexibility, and inclusivity were key principles guiding the design and development of spaces that supported playful learning experiences.

Educational resource development within the ACES project was driven by values of playfulness, frugality, and co-creation. The project recommended designing modular, adaptable, and open practice resources that promoted reuse and repurposing of existing materials. Embedding playful learning resources in the curriculum and mapping them to specific learning objectives can ensure a seamless integration of playfulness into the educational journey (see Arnab, Mahon, Masters et al., 2021). Encouraging reflection and self-evaluation by learners empower them to take ownership of their learning and development.

The ACES project employed a participatory action research (PAR) approach, with theory of change as a key mechanism, to develop resilience across the project partnership and within communities. This embedded PAR facilitated collective action and knowledge, rooted in community-centred values, and directly useful to the community. Recognising that there was no one-size-fits-all solution, the ACES approach was flexible, responsive, and reflective and encouraged creativity. By involving the community in the design and development process, projects could be sustained over the long term, leading to meaningful and lasting impact.

Playful and frugal co-creation with the children at Pasir Pandak, Borneo

The project demonstrated significant impact in various ways. One of the key pathways to impact lies in upskilling educators and promoting creative teaching and learning. Through formal and remote training, workshops, and co-creative activities, educators were equipped with the necessary skills and tools to foster grassroots social innovation. The integration of the ACES approach into teacher training programs in Malaysia and Vietnam, the upskilling of NGO educators in Indonesia, and the co-creation of initiatives such as the ACES playgrounds were concrete examples of the project’s impact on educators and communities.

Societal and economic impacts were also observed in the countries where the ACES project was implemented. The frugal approach to learning influenced not only teachers and students but also their families, especially during the challenging times of the pandemic. The project’s initiatives, such as hands-free sanitiser foot pedals and frugal STEM initiatives, addressed the needs of communities and contributed to sustainable solutions. Collaborative efforts with NGOs and charities created economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities while preserving traditional crafts and cultural heritage, such as the engagement with disabled Batik makers in Indonesia.

Frugal and playful responses to community needs formed an integral part of the ACES project’s impact. Through collaboration with local teams, universities, policymakers, schools, and NGOs, the project co-created unique solutions that catered to the specific needs of each community. From the Green Playground in Vietnam to the Playful Bus in Malaysia and the ACES Playful Corner in Indonesia, these community-driven initiatives promoted cultural identity, inclusive learning, and social engagement. By empowering communities and leveraging their strengths, the ACES project fostered a sense of ownership and resilience.

The ACES project has left a lasting legacy, inspiring sustainable practices in education. Its holistic approach to space, educational resource development, and participatory action research continues to influence educators and communities. By recognising the transformative potential of playful learning and embracing frugality and co-creation, the ACES project has paved the way for a more creative and engaged future. As the project partners sustain the initiative in their respective countries, the benefits of playful learning and the development of social resilience will continue to shape the global education landscape.

Check out playful and frugal STEM activities co-created by teachers from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam through the ACES challenge in 2022: Handbook here!

Check out the ACES Charter that consolidates the principles and values that have driven the community-engaged playful and frugal activities: Charter here!

ACES case studies here

ACES Tour across the three countries Nov-Dec 2022

ACES initiatives continue to flourish beyond the formally funded project. Follow our partners:

Malaysia – CreativeCulture

Indonesia – Reogify

Vietnam – ACES Nam (D-Lab)

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