February 29, 2024

Last stop before retirement? A BRAC Play Lab!

Donella Rapier, outgoing President and CEO of BRAC USA, shares an update from her recent visit to Tanzania—and the joy she experienced while visiting a Play Lab.

A child in a Play Lab laughs while looking at the camera and wearing a Tanzania soccer jersey. Photo by Lee Cohen.


Over the course of my nearly eight years at BRAC, I’ve had opportunities to visit BRAC’s programs in several countries across Asia and Africa. This past December, I had the chance to spend time with some of BRAC’s youngest program participants in Tanzania.

Ironically, one of my very first trips as CEO of BRAC USA was to Tanzania in 2016. During that whirlwind of a visit, I mostly saw the inside of a conference room, meeting with BRAC leaders from across the globe. Returning to Tanzania for my last trip as CEO before my retirement and seeing some of the programs our dedicated team has worked to expand over the years felt like a full circle moment.

The highlight? A day I spent at a Play Lab, BRAC’s flagship early childhood program. The morning started off a bit chaotic: the car I was in ran out of gas of all things, causing a delay to the day’s itinerary. Meanwhile, I was still adjusting to the seven hour time difference from Boston.

But as soon as I set foot in our Play Lab, I felt energized. Whether you’re in rural Uganda, a refugee camp in Bangladesh, or urban Dar Es Salaam as I was on this trip, when you walk into a Play Lab, you are immediately greeted with a sea of bright colors, smiling faces, and the buzzing sounds of laughter.  

It struck me that everything felt festive and celebratory, from the colorful paint on the walls, to a canopy of glittering mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Made from old CDs and discarded potato chip bags, the mobiles were a perfect example of the resourcefulness of the parents and Play Leaders, and the Play Lab’s lessons around recycling, too!

I have visited numerous classrooms around the world that feel stuffy and formal: the children sit in neat rows, trying to memorize words or numbers, and looking frightened. Not so in a Play Lab! As soon as you step inside, you feel the pure joy radiating from the children.

The day I visited, the children played a numbers game. It was a version of hopscotch, and they jumped from one numbered square to another as their Play Leader called out numbers. The kids were all jumping up and down, raising their hands to have a turn, and cheering for one another. It was delightful to see such pure expression of joy from these children.

When children laugh and play together like that, they are not just having fun: their brains are developing. Through structured games, independent play, and free play with other children, children build on their cognitive, socio-emotional, and language development.

Some adults think play is a waste of time, but it’s actually one of the most important things children can do, because they learn while they play. I met parents volunteering at the center who remarked that their children had come out of their shells, built confidence, and learned so much since starting at the Play Lab nearly two years ago. BRAC’s Play Labs are a testament to the growing evidence base demonstrating that play is a powerful developmental tool. 

In Tanzania, funding for this Play Lab and the hundreds of others BRAC runs around the country is winding down. Knowing that these centers may close when this cohort of children heads off to primary school breaks my heart. 

But I know that for the thousands of children that have laughed and learned between these walls, their experiences will be life-changing. They’ll remember them forever. And, the gains they made in their development will stick with them through school and in life, helping set a strong foundation for their futures. I only hope that more children in Tanzania and beyond can have that same life-changing experience.

Reflecting on my time at BRAC, I realize how visits like this one have shaped my outlook. By leading with hope, community, and joy, BRAC has had a deep and profound impact on the people it supports, including its littlest learners in Tanzania. It has been the greatest privilege of my career to play a role in amplifying effective and joy-based programs like the Play Labs, so they can continue to impact generations of learners and their families.

A child in a Play Lab laughs while looking at the camera and wearing a Tanzania soccer jersey. Photo by Lee Cohen.A child in a Play Lab laughs while looking at the camera and wearing a Tanzania soccer jersey. Photo by Lee Cohen.

Donella Rapier is Outgoing President & CEO at BRAC USA.