LONDON (Reuters) - Giving pre-school children toys to play with boosts their mental development even if they suffer from malnutrition, a report said on Friday.
The report, published in the Lancet medical journal, said several studies had found a clear link between intelligence and child's play.
"We have done play programmes in Bangladesh where the children are severely malnourished and we have produced up to a nine-point improvement in the IQ of these kids -- just with play," said author Sally McGregor of the Institute of Child Health at University College London.
"Malnutrition on its own is a problem. Malnutrition without mental stimulation is an even bigger problem," she said in an interview.
The report found that more than 200 million of the world's poorest children were underfed and under-stimulated.
It said 89 million of the most neglected children lived in south Asia, while 145 million were divided among India, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania.
Simple intervention at the lowest level by governments and aid agencies to change attitudes and encourage pre-school play at home, as well as basic nutrition, could have a major effect, researchers concluded.
"People are focused on reducing mortality. But they haven't realised that so many children are not reaching their potential," said McGregor. "But by the time they reach five or six and go to school their chances are almost blown."
McGregor said that, in studies in Jamaica, villagers with no secondary education themselves were sent into homes with home-made toys to teach mothers how play with their children.
"We followed the children up to 18 years of age and their IQ is better, their reading is better, they are less likely to drop out of school and their mental health is better -- they are less depressed, less anxious and have better self-esteem," she said.
"There is a lot of ignorance about what a child needs -- they think that play is not for adults and they don't understand that they can improve the child's development," she added.