The Role of Play in Healing Children and Communities in Crisis Settings
In conflict or crisis situations, a focus on physical survival needs in refugee camps or informal urban settlements, means that children’s psychological needs are often neglected. Such stressful situations force adults to prioritize meeting other basic needs like food, shelter, and safety over creating a more nurturing environment, leading to limited opportunities for play. As a result, these children struggle to have the safe space to express their needs, they might show violence towards family members or peers, repress their emotions and show reluctance in building relationships or in engaging in any meaningful activity.
When a community experiences conflict or crisis, children are less able to share their emotions through words, especially when or after experiencing shock or trauma. They may find it difficult to identify the emotions they’re feeling or understand what is actually happening to them. In these situations, play can be a powerful healing tool for children. Through play, children have freedom and escapism. They feel like they are in control of their bodies and environment—able to find joy, forget troubles at home, regenerate, learn new things, and build self-confidence. In essence, it’s an effective way for children to process, respond to, and recover from what they’ve experienced.
For example, after the mass influx of Rohingya refugees into Myanmar, many young children who could not articulate the trauma they experienced began to express the grave atrocities they witnessed—such as murder and arson—in vivid detail through their drawings. To help these children, BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab, a leading international non-profit with a mission to empower people and communities in situations of poverty, and social injustice, made careful considerations to ensure that the children are engaged in activities that celebrate the Rohingya culture. Children chant Kabbya (rhyming) in their language every morning, they listen to and tell Kissa (stories), and play physical games such as, Bang Khela (a frog game), Hathi Khela (an elephant game), which are unique to Rohingya culture. The walls and doors of the centres are decorated with drawings and murals made by Rohingya children, adolescents, parents, and community members which often feature traditional floral and vine motifs painted in bright colors. The centres are also adorned with colourful Shamiyanas (a ceiling drape made from cloth) which are designed and sewn by women from the community. By putting all this in place, the Humanitarian Play Lab centres become a safe and welcoming space for children, where they feel joy, pride, and a sense of ownership and belonging.
Creating spaces for play after experiencing crisis doesn’t just help children, it helps their parents. When communities experience crisis, parents often do not have enough time, resources or the state of mind to provide at home, the positive stimulation that developing children need. Struggling to respond positively to children’s mental and emotional needs for stimulation, parents could react with harsh language, dismissive or neglectful behaviour or even corporal punishments. In such situations, when young children get to spend time in Play Labs or community playgrounds, parents feel relieved that their children are happily engaged in a safe place and it also gives them some free time to focus on their own wellbeing. Parents also feel happy and proud when they see that playing with peers and play leaders have made children more eager to learn and conduct themselves more confidently and independently. Many mothers who send their children to BRAC Play Labs have shared that they observe an evident positive impact on children’s development in various domains such as, cognitive, physical, socio-emotional, language, creative and so on.
In many places of conflict or disaster, a major challenge is the availability of space and materials for play spaces. Therefore, gaining the support of communities and parents, and increasing the understanding of the value of play for them and their children, is imperative. The BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab has succeeded at executing projects because of the help of community leaders. They become play advocates who come forward to support the play initiative by helping with lands to lease, infrastructure and logistics support, and material for building outdoor play equipments or toys. They also volunteer support to field staff to take care of the children when they are attending the sessions. With community endorsement it is possible to create play spaces adjacent to other facilities such as hospitals, day-care centres, schools or any other administrative offices, which helps to make play initiatives more integrated and inclusive in approach. When the programs, spaces and materials are co-created with parents and communities, it creates more opportunities for play to heal children and also creates a sense of ownership in the community which ensures the sustainability of any play-based initiative.
We believe that making the right to play a priority, especially in times of crises, is important because it is one of the most efficient ways to help children recover from the distress, shock, and trauma experienced. In the Rohingya camps, BRAC’s mental health experts and para-counsellors often come across children who have experienced something deeply traumatizing that they should never have encountered as children. In a situation like this, play can help children be children again. Mental health practitioners at BRAC have also illustrated how observing children in the act of play gives them insights about any potential mental health challenge a child might be facing, thus helping them to identify children who need further help from para-counsellors or counselling psychologists. This is why play is a very important starting point and one of the most efficient methods of genuinely helping children in crisis settings.