Refuge Playground: A project to give refugee kids and their new friends the space to play

Imagine a world with more playgrounds and less battlegrounds. We can live in that world. We once did as children. But today, the battlegrounds continue to spread as the playgrounds continue to disappear. So if we want to live in a more playful world, where all our children are free to explore and express their inner artist and scientist, we must create it before anymore playgrounds disappear and the battlegrounds continue to spread. We as a global community must take a stand to protect the basic human right of all children to play, because the threat to one child’s right to play is a threat to children everywhere.

The first refugee playground will be built in Germany. Will you help us create a more playful world?

Yemeni children stand amid the rubble of a building damaged in a Saudi airstrike on the capital Sana’a on July 13, 2015. (AFP)

Today, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over thirty million kids have been displaced from their homes and families due to war, conflict, persecution, occupation, natural disaster, deportation, child trafficking, slavery, military enlistment and food shortages. In fact, not since World War II have there been so many kids displaced around the world, the majority of which are under the age of twelve. While as recently as October of this year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group reported that 12,517 children died due to just the Syrian conflict alone.

Meanwhile, the few neighboring countries that have given refuge to millions of refugees experience an unprecedented strain on their infrastructure and social services, yet still receive grossly insufficient international aid. While other neighboring countries have kept their borders shut. So many refugees of differing backgrounds and means have been forced to take their chances aboard unseaworthy boats and dinghies in a desperate attempt to reach the European countries that are welcoming them with better aid and opportunity that are not available in their home or neighboring countries. A journey so perilous that in 2015 alone, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determined that 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died or gone missing at sea.

A Syrian refugee boy wrapped in thermal blanket after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees deflated near the shore of a Greek Island.

According to Bavarian social minister Emilia Müller of the Christian Social Union, the German government computer systems as of October 2015 had already registered more than one million refugees and migrants. In fact, the sheer number of refugees has led to risk of a “breakdown of provisions” as Germany continues to struggle to procure enough living containers and sanitary facilities for the new arrivals. In fact, in Berlin this winter refugees are sleeping in old Nazi airport hangars, while in Munich some refugees are staying on the grounds of an old Nazi concentration camp.

A boy sits on a toy car and plays with stuffed animals as he waits with other refugees for registration at the temporary registration center of the south German border town Passau, Germany. Markus Schreiber / AP

Whether the refugees will eventually be able to obtain asylum and integrate into their new host countries, or will remain in temporary housing before returning to their homelands to rebuild, the difficulties facing refugee children and their families will continue long after the media has lost interest. But addressing the challenges that lie ahead, as well as their associated costs, involves more than just meeting the refugees’ basic needs for shelter, food, clothes, and medicine. If we do not address the psychological and social needs fundamental to the healthy development and well being of the refugee children, particularly when it comes to war trauma, the negative impacts and costs to the children, their families and the communities they call home will continue to substantially escalate over many years to come.

Greek goddess Niobe weeping in Gaza, Banksy (2015)

Numerous research investigations such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study has shown that childhood trauma leads to toxic stress that substantially affects brain development, the immune and endocrine systems, and the way that DNA is read and transcribed, and can make as much as a 20-year difference in life expectancy. Such trauma also gives rise to anxiety, narcissism, depression, feelings of helplessness, and even suicide. For example, physician, psychiatrist, and clinical researcher Stuart Brown and his team studied more than 6,000 felons and found that 90 percent of convicted murderers had a play-deprived life which lead to depression, over control, envy, proneness to addiction, and were found to live in a narrower, more stereotyped world which led to them being the forerunners of social and personal breakdown. While a review of the research literature conclusively shows that a play-deprived life leads to increased prevalence of depression, a tendency to become mired in rigid inflexible perceptions of options available for adaptation, diminished impulse control, less self regulation, increased addictive predilection, diminished management of aggression, and fragility and shallowness of enduring interpersonal relationships.

Banksy, Crayon Shooter (2011)

Although with proper intervention, refugee children and their families can recover from their trauma to become successful contributing members of their communities. A tried and tested form of intervention calls for a dedicated and child-centered play space with trained play workers and therapists that can ensure a safe and caring environment for children to freely express themselves in the play process. In such a play space children have a refuge where they can process their trauma to optimally develop self-regulation, curiosity, increased perseverance, progressive mastery and optimism. While top education experts like Tony Wagner of the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University’s School of Education states that play remains the best way for children to develop skills like: curiosity, imagination, initiative, collaboration, agility, adaptability and innovativeness that will best enable their personal, academic and professional success.

Children play on the bomb sites and wrecked tanks in Berlin, in the aftermath of the fighting in the city, 1945

In the aftermath of World War II, “Junk” or “adventure playgrounds” were first created from recycled, reclaimed and repurposed construction, building and junkyard materials. With the imposed order of Nazi occupation, the Danish government was overwhelmed with a child delinquency problem in which children played in prohibited spaces including construction sites and junk yards. So they hired multiple architects to design play spaces for children, but the children did not use them. But then one Danish architect along with a working class community discovered that the best play spaces are those in which children could freely create, build and develop themselves. There, children had the needed refuge to imagine a new reality beyond their surroundings to form their dreams and fantasies from physical loose-part materials. The playground was so successful that on the first day there were over 1,000 children.

United Nations Ambassador Lady Allen of Hurtwood, “Why Not Use Our Bomb Sites Like This?” Picture Post, November 16, 1946

At the same time Europe was overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of displaced children due to World War II who were separated from their families or uprooted due to the bombings, military conscription, occupation, forced labor, deportation, and death of their parents. It was then that international humanitarian organizations, government officials, and child welfare experts determined the rehabilitation of those ‘lost children’ was essential to the biological, moral, and economic reconstruction of Europe. Shortly thereafter, ambassadors from the United Nations who had heard about the success of the Junk Playgrounds came to Denmark on a mission to study the concept. From there, they took the idea of junk playgrounds back to London, rebranded it as Adventure Playgrounds, and the idea spread from England to many other countries around the world as a successful intervention.

Notting Hill Adventure Playground, c.1960

What if today German children and refugee children had a safe and caring permanent, dedicated and child-centered play space staffed by trained play workers recreation and play therapists? The space would have sand, water, dirt, clay, grass, plants and trees, as well as a shipping container filled with recycled, reclaimed, and repurposed physical loose-part materials and tools such as: pallets, furniture, tires, boxes, wood, bamboo, rope, clothes pins, string, sticky tape, cardboard, fabric, buckets, used clothes, hammers, nails, house and face paint, paint brushes, paper, balls, chalk, netting, tubing and piping. There children of differing backgrounds, experiences and means will be able to freely express their inner artist and scientist by having the opportunity to tinker, build and make their own forts, dens, playhouses, obstacles, games, art and experiments together.

Where the children have lacked structure, stability and control in their lives we will give them the opportunity to create their own structure and stability. They will be in control of what and how they want to be by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way and for their own reasons. As the children build and develop their own playground together they will also learn to communicate, trust and empathize across cultures. Then as friendships grow they will learn to value diversity, collaborate and innovate together. Such a playground would also put a face on the crisis, send a powerful message to Germany and the rest of the world of what is possible beyond our realities and bring hope to our creative and shared future.

ICY and SOT, Iran (2012)

Imagine a world with more playgrounds and less battlegrounds. We can live in that world. We once did as children. But today, the battlegrounds continue to spread as the playgrounds continue to disappear. So if we want to live in a more playful world, where all our children are free to explore and express their inner artist and scientist, we must create it before anymore playgrounds disappear and the battlegrounds continue to spread. We as a global community must take a stand to protect the basic human right of all children to play, because the threat to one child’s right to play is a threat to children everywhere.

Please join Refuge Playground, an alliance of play experts and social activists from around the world, in making a lasting positive impact in the lives of refugee children by giving them a play refuge where they will have the play space they need to heal.

Will you help us make the world more playful? If so, you can easily help right now by liking and sharing this article with others in your network.

A Refuge Playground provides a safe and caring play space for all kids, especially those displaced from their homes and families due to war, conflict, persecution, occupation, natural disaster, deportation, child trafficking, slavery, military enlistment, food shortages and disease. In the play space, trauma trained workers facilitate access to recycled, reclaimed and repurposed physical loose-part materials and tools for the kids to freely express themselves in the play process. There kids of all backgrounds and experiences including those of the host community come together to envision new possibilities beyond their surroundings by creating, building and developing their own playground.