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Protecting, Educating, and Empowering Children during COVID-19: Q & A with Susan McIsaac, Right To Play’s new CEO

Girl in China practices handwashing

You’re coming into this role at a time of great turbulence around the world, and great challenges for children. Can you share what you’re most concerned about, and what makes you hopeful?

It’s been an incredibly difficult time for the children we work with, and there’s a lot to be very worried about.

What concerns me most right now is the impact of learning interruptions on children’s lives, and on their hopes for the futures. School shutdowns put 1.5 billion children out of school last year, creating disruption on a scale we’ve never experienced before. While some children have gone back, close to one billion are still out of school, and lacking basic support and opportunities.

These interruptions could have serious long-term effects on children’s lives and development. I’m particularly concerned for all the girls who have fought so hard for their chance at an education, and who may never be able to go back to school when they re-open, either because they’ve had to start working, or because they’ve gotten married to support their families.

What I’m most hopeful about are the many program innovations Right To Play has developed over the past year to keep children healthy and safe, learning, and mentally strong. Our teams have been doing incredible work to ensure children have the support and opportunities they need to thrive in the midst of lockdowns and other crises. We’ve profiled some of those initiatives on our website.

Susan McIsaac - Lebanon
Susan McIsaac, Right To Play CEO, visiting programs in Jordan prior to the outbreak of COVID-19

How has Right To Play responded to the challenges posed by COVID-19? What are the programmatic priorities this year?

Right To Play’s response has been focused on modifying our programs to ensure children were still learning and protected when schools shut down. Our teams have been using radio, television, and direct community outreach as well as digital tools and platforms to reach children where they are with engaging play-based lessons that keep them active and learning – learning about how to protect themselves and their communities from COVID and how to work through their emotions during these difficult times, as well as learning all the skills and knowledge they would normally be picking up in school.

We’re also working at all levels to place an enhanced focus on girls to ensure they can keep learning through the pandemic and go back to school when they re-open. Some of the ways we’re doing that is through community sensitization events that raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education. Girls are also at the forefront of this effort, writing radio plays and speaking to their communities about their desire for education and hopes for the future. We’re also working with ministries of education to ensure that where school lessons are being delivered remotely, the curriculum is gender-responsive and inclusive of the needs of all children, including girls.

The other thing I’m very proud of is the work our teams are doing to provide psychosocial support to children dealing with the added trauma of the pandemic. As has been widely reported, the pandemic is a crisis on top of a crisis, placing children who were already dealing with displacement, violence, poverty, and dangerous and difficult living situations at even greater risk. While we work with communities to ensure children are protected, we’re also using a whole host of play-based methods to help children manage complex emotions and maintain social and emotional connections. We know this support will be critical to their recovery. We’re also working to ensure that all the teachers and coaches we work with have the training they need to be supporting children in the way that they need.

What is it about play that that makes it such a powerful tool for development and change?

Play is fundamental to children’s development. It’s how they learn about the world.

Play helps children develop their imaginations, their motor skills, their memory, their dexterity. It helps them foster inclusion and cooperation, and provides ways to build self-esteem and relationships, and recognize and manage their emotions. Through play, children not only learn literacy and numeracy skills, but also holistic skills. And it brings joy into their lives, and the lives of those around them – something we all need more of these days.

I think one of the things the pandemic has underlined is the enormous benefit and importance of play in all its forms – creative play, self-directed free play, sports – in children’s lives, and what happens when they don’t have that outlet. That’s why we’re more committed than ever to ensuring that all children have a chance to learn and express themselves through play.

You recently completed a new Strategic Plan. Can you talk a bit about Right To Play’s ambition over the next five years?

Our work over the next five years will be focused on ensuring that we are able to protect, educate, and empower more of the world’s most vulnerable children – the children who are facing the most adversity, whether because of their gender, ability, background, or living circumstances.

We’ll continue our leadership in the play-based education space, partnering with educational authorities to ensure more children have access to high-quality, play-based education that engages and inspires them to go to school, stay in school, graduate, and become leaders in their communities.

And, leveraging some of the learnings we had last year, we’ll make full use of the power of technology to work beyond our borders, open-sourcing our tools and resources, and leading on educational certification to bring play into more classrooms and communities in the countries around the world.

Ultimately, our goal is to empower millions of children to rise above adversity through the power of play, ensuring they have the education, skills, and opportunities they need to create a more peaceful, productive, and equitable world.

You had the opportunity to visit programs in several countries before the pandemic. Can you tell us about your favourite or most memorable moment?

There can be no favourites! There were so many powerful moments in each country and community I visited.

What I’ve found most powerful in my travels so far, in every country I’ve visited, is the remarkable resilience and joy I saw in so many children I met. The concentration on the faces of the small children in the reading club in Ghana, the giggles of the children dancing in class in Mali, the confidence and pride of the performers at the celebration in the primary school in Gaza, the sense of accomplishment of the girls in computer club in Lebanon. Those are moments I’ll never forget, and that drive my work every day.

COVID has made it very clear how important it is to support causes and people close to home. Why should people also be giving to international causes as well?

The pandemic has created hardship for people across the globe, with pressures arising in all systems and areas of daily life, from healthcare and education to employment and social services.

In the Global South, many places just do not have the infrastructure and resources to respond effectively to the crisis. Millions of people are living in conditions that social distancing, hygiene, and wearing masks difficult or impossible. Internet access isn’t reliable, making education inaccessible. Families are struggling to provide for their basic needs, which means many children are made to work, or to get married, in order to ease financial burdens – putting their safety and futures at risk.

We absolutely need to care for and respond to the needs of our neighbours and the people in our communities. And we also need to think beyond our borders and support a global recovery – it’s the only way we will truly be able to overcome this crisis.

Right To Play turned 20 last year. How does it feel to come into the CEO role at this time? What’s your approach to leadership?

I’m honoured and excited to lead Right To Play at this important moment in its history, and so proud of the remarkable team of dedicated, smart colleagues I work with, and what they’ve built over the past 20 years.

My approach to leadership is simple: provide clarity in our vision and plan, ensure our team is resourced to do their important work, and then empower them to do it. We have very strong and ambitious leadership across the organization that is committed to our mission; to measurement, impact and learning; and to each other. I have great confidence in our ability to make a real impact on the lives of millions of children.