Play, a right and a healing to trauma


As this year marks the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, as well as the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), we wish to highlight an important element of child well-being raised in both documents, and recognize the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, and free and full participation in cultural and artistic life (Art. 31 CRC). Protecting this right is essential to providing an environment where children are encouraged to grow and explore the world. Play also provides the time and space for the enjoyment of life, which is an important aspect of well-being.


In “Children’s Coping, Adaptation, and Resilience through Play in Situations of Crisis” (2018), Sudeshna Chatterjee examines how children use play to cope with and adapt to unsafe situations or surroundings. Children who encounter disaster are at risk for long-term trauma effects that go beyond the immediate physical, emotional, and social upheaval caused by a crisis event. In the aftermath of a crisis, children’s play helps channel character strengths into personal peer relationships and thereby gain empathy, sense of competence, and self-esteem.

Play provides many benefits to children. In general terms, play aids the development of creativity and imagination; the growth of self-confidence in leadership, decision-making, and conflict resolution; and helps children share communication and culture through games and stories. Additionally, play allows children to build up resilience by creating a protected environment to develop skills of adaptation or resistance. If the opportunity, community, or space for play are lost, then children are deprived of not only stability but also the opportunity to build the adaptive skills that are relevant to their lives and necessary in crises.

Child-environment research shows that having a designated space for recreation supports child exploration and self-expression and the space of play has an important role in providing stability and safety for this personal growth. Losing the physical space of play is a challenge that many children in crisis face beyond any inequality, deprivation, or discrimination experienced beforehand. Because play provides an important tool for both emotional relief and character development, children in crisis must receive special attention to ensure that the difficulties of their lives are not compounded because their right to play and leisure has been left unfulfilled.

The research, an initiative of the International Play Association led by Chatterjee was innovative in its methodology, and Equity for Children is proud to see academics taking action to improve the responsiveness of research and the policy it informs by creating inclusive methodologies that capture the child perspective and all of the complexities of the experiences of children in crisis. There are still gaps in research and a challenge facing practitioners and academics in capturing a more multidimensional picture through data. However, the methods employed by Chatterjee show the concern Equity for Children and our allies in the field share surrounding improving and optimizing a multidimensional approach. This work is a step towards our vision for research aimed at improving child well-being brings child perspectives to the forefront in order to yield more beneficial and meaningful policy responses. The research, conducted in six countries in Asia and the Middle East, engaged children through participatory and visual tools that let them map risks that threatened play in their community, conversational interviews, child-led demonstrations of play experiences, and child-led tours of their local area and of sites of play.

The findings of the study illuminate the critical importance of play in many crisis situations ranging from natural disaster to everyday crisis. For instance, the research conducted in earthquake aftermath settings in Nepal and Japan found that the urge to seek special or secret places becomes heightened as a coping mechanism for the stress of the disaster. This can create difficulties because concern for safety often drives parents in the aftermath of crisis to deny permission to play unsupervised or outside, even though it is a tool to work through trauma and is important to cultivating children’s sense of competency and resilience.

Research conducted in India and Thailand in riverside communities of migrant laborers investigated the importance of play in communities in which the river, despite being an unsafe play setting, was the only available space for play as well as many daily socio-cultural and religious activities. Many types of unsafe play were identified in the studies, including play conducted at railroad tracks, in abandoned buildings, and in parking areas. However, the research found that the communities considered the river the greatest risk, and even attempted to prepare children for the dangers of sites they considered lower-risk than the river by teaching children things like how to identify a train’s approach through the vibration of the track. Regardless, the children preferred the natural setting of the river despite the risks, which were managed through rules and through the children’s development of risk management skills.

The most critical contribution of this research to the field is identifying the fact that play not only improves social development and confidence, but also acts as an important coping mechanism for children in crisis. Play is vital enough to children’s lives and sense of well-being that it occurs regardless of whether there is a safe place for it, and children learn to manage the risks of their environment by using play to develop coping mechanisms for trauma as well as social and practical capabilities. It is crucial that the broader policy arena recognize the importance of this right for children worldwide, but particularly to children most at risk of having it left unrealized. Children in contexts of deprivation, whether due to crisis or to socioeconomic, cultural, or personal challenges, enter the world on unequal footing. Facing barriers to space or opportunity for play removes an important setting to manage emotional stresses from other areas of life while also developing social tools necessary to develop confidence and successful interpersonal communication throughout life.

Child participation and input must be central components of research and the decision-making it informs. We are working hard alongside our peers in the field to help ensure that policy addresses what children perceive as their most debilitating deprivations and incorporates their views and suggestions. Therefore, we look forward to seeing more research of this sort. We are also excited to continue to conduct inclusive and multidimensional research that provides data capable of helping practitioners develop meaningful solutions to complex failures of social, political, and economic systems. This type of research will be fundamental to safeguarding child well-being and ensuring no one is left behind, and we thank all who help us conduct it.

Download here the General Comment of the UN General Assembly.

Download here the article on Children’s Coping, Adaptation and Resilience through Play in Situations of Crisis.

To access the synthesis report visit the International Play Association website.


Image Credits: Muhammed Muheisen

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