Protecting Children’s Safety and Emotional Well-being Through Play

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An Interview with Huda Ghalegolabi, Child Protection Specialist

Around the world, more children than ever are displaced from their homes due to conflict, poverty, and the effects of climate change. Displacement puts children at greater risk of experiencing violence, food insecurity, and learning loss, and can have a lifelong impact on children’s psychosocial well-being.

For more than 20 years, Right To Play has worked to help children who are experiencing conflict and displacement to cope with and overcome trauma, and regain a sense of hope and agency.

We spoke with Child Protection Specialist Huda Ghalegolabi about the impact of conflict and displacement on children, and how play-based psychosocial support programs can help protect children from further harm by enabling them to cope and recover.

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Since 2011, more than 6.8 million Syrians have fled their home country. Many families have found refuge in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan.

Millions of children around the world are living through war, displacement, and protracted poverty. What toll does that take on their health and well-being?

These challenges have many severe effects on children’s lives: they force them from stable environments, separate them from their caregivers, and cut them off from fundamental services such as clean water, health, education, and psychosocial support.

Conflict also exposes children to more violence: emotional and physical violence, abuse, being recruited into armed groups, being forced into early marriage or made to do dangerous work. They may also experience injury or death themselves, or witness violence towards or the death of someone close to them.

This all can have a huge impact on children’s emotional well-being and development. And there’s a lack of services that address the psychosocial needs of children in emergencies, and in general. My concern is that if we don't address children’s psychosocial support needs or build a child’s resilience early, it can put them at risk of serious mental health issues, self-harm, substance abuse, and exploitation. We could face a future where, as adults, those children are unable to be fruitful, effective members of society.

For many years now, children’s basic needs in crisis situations have been treated the same as those of adults, with little attention for their developmental needs. There are common basic needs, of course: food, water, shelter. But, unlike adults, children's brains and bodies are still developing, and they need additional support and protection to be able to thrive, especially when they experience difficult events. This is especially true when it comes to psychosocial support.

For children, play is sometimes as important as food and shelter. I've seen it in many different emergency settings. I’ve seen children who have not eaten or slept for days, and when you bring them to play spaces and give them toys or encourage them to play, after several sessions, several days, they relax more and are able to attend to their basic needs. That set off a light bulb for me. These interventions are really life-saving for so many children.

Can you provide examples of how Right To Play supports children's psychosocial well-being?

There’s been much research done on how play impacts children’s well-being and supports them in learning basic skills. In emergencies, providing spaces and opportunities to play can mitigate the long-term impacts of trauma on their bodies and minds. This need should be treated as life-saving.

In times of crisis, access to schools and play spaces where children feel normal – where they can be children – is often curtailed. Having access to play and play spaces has a huge impact on how children feel returned to normalcy after an emergency, and how they re-gain their safe self-esteem and feel normal.

We conduct needs assessments to see how children's environments are being impacted, and we create those spaces where children can play, whether it’s free play or more structured play using drama and music, and where we can provide play-based psychosocial services in a safe environment.

For example, after the Beirut explosion, we ran a program that used a structured set of play activities that enhanced children’s ability to control their stress and express their emotions. Evaluations showed that after being in the program, children had improved their sense of agency and had increased their life skills.

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After a traumatic experience, finding moments of calm and joy can help a child regain a sense of normalcy.

In the Palestinian Territories, we provide psychosocial support activities in schools as well as with parents in the community so they can learn how to support their children at home through play. Parents see how a child who isn’t eating or is too stressed to sleep can relax when they're engaged in play and can connect with adults and their peers. We did a focus group with children and parents in Gaza following the introduction of Play at Home COVID-19 activities, and both mothers and children said that they felt better after participating in games. Children said they felt they had more hope and could connect with parents and siblings.

Overall, we see that structured play-based psychosocial support programs can be very helpful in supporting children to overcome adversity and difficult situations. We train community members, teachers, and youth in how to run these activities to ensure that the knowledge stays in communities, and we involve children so that they have a say in program development.

Can you put yourself in the shoes of a child and describe what it feels like to join a program?

If I’m a child, I enter the space, and I might be a little bit nervous and stressed to see new children I don’t know, and to be in a new place. The coach invites me in and explains what we’re going to do. They also tell me it's okay if I don't want to participate right away, which makes me feel more secure, less worried, and safer.

Then we play some games that help me get to know my peers better. We might work together to draw things in our school or in our community that make us happy and talk about them with our coach. Sometimes we role-play. Maybe I become an animal and act out my feelings as that animal. Sometimes we play competitive games like “The Potato Sack” that make it fun to win and compete. Or we might play a game called “Hey, Wait!” that helps with negative self-perception, where I imagine that I’m walking down the street with a big parrot on my shoulder and all the kids shout nice things about me and my parrot.

I like these games because they allow me to use my body and my voice and make me feel better. When I come back the next day, I know there are new things we can do and experience, so I'm always looking forward to it. It makes me forget some of the difficulties I have at home, or the fact that I’m not able to go to school. When I don't feel so good or feel stressed or sad, these are fun programs to be part of. They also show me who I can talk to if I feel stressed.

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How do you integrate children’s perspectives into program development?

We ask our Junior Leaders — youth who lead sessions with children — to tell us what activities have helped them, and which games they like to run. They tell us about the activities that make them feel confident, help them become better leaders, communicate with other children, or allow them to be themselves. That helps us to shape some of our programs. It's important to take children’s experiences and views on board when we’re developing programs. Feedback shouldn’t only come from adults.

How do you ensure psychosocial support programs meet the needs of children with disabilities and of girls?

Inclusion of all children is really important because play is not exclusively for children with full abilities. We focus on adapting games for children who have different abilities, and we also encourage children with visible or invisible disabilities to lead games. This way, children understand that disabilities should not prevent them from participating and should not prevent other children from learning from them. Children gain an understanding that everybody has superpowers.

We are also very aware of the fact that girls in many communities may be confined to doing house chores or other things and may not have equal access to the same play opportunities as boys, so giving them access to play enhances and empowers them, and gives them a chance to have fun and to learn. This is also why the timing of activities is very important to ensuring girls’ participation.

Many of our programs raise awareness about gender equality, make space for boys and girls to participate equally, and invite children to reflect on why it’s important for girls and boys to be involved to have equal opportunities – all through play.

What are the questions you’re asking right now about how to ensure programs have the most impact on children?

We’re thinking about how we can involve more children in leading games and activities with their peers. And we’re wondering if psychosocial support programs for children in emergencies have a better impact when they're peer-led than when they’re adult-led. We’re asking ourselves, what is the role of children in ensuring their own psychosocial well-being and supporting their peers?

We know from research that peers and friends play a more important role in children’s lives when they reach adolescence. We want to test this and see if peer-led programs make a bigger difference in children’s psychosocial well-being and resilience, and if engaging them in their own protection can enhance their bonds.

By applying a peer support model, we may be able to contribute to violence reduction amongst children. For example, by using play to reduce bullying and to help children build empathy, self-awareness, and coping and communication skills.

Those are some of the questions we have. I'm hoping that we can generate some good data that can respond to these questions. I also hope that we can contribute to the wider Child Protection sector on how to better use play as a tool to enhance children's protection and well-being.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.