Using a playground to help children cope with trauma

Published: 12 March 2014 15:55 CET

Hansika Bhagani, IFRC

In a small playground in southern Zimbabwe, children jostle for space on the dirt volleyball court. There are shouts and cries of victory after the ball crashes into the net and before the game continues. For the players, this game is a brief reprieve from a situation that is much more dire.

There are nearly 300 children at the Chingwizi transit camp who, having been forced to flee their homes due to flooding, are now without a stable home environment and education. They will eventually be resettled permanently in another location, but this could take many months.

Some of the children arrived at the camp with their families, confused and hungry after days of travel. Others came with no family at all, carrying what little they could save from waterlogged houses. “The kids coming here are under a lot of stress,” says Chipo Kari, a volunteer with the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society who helped build the playground at the camp. “It was a sad situation when I first arrived as the kids would come to the playground in small groups with their parents. It was really bad. There was no interaction and it was a somber atmosphere.”

Everyone handles stress differently. In children, some withdraw into themselves, others get angry and act out, while others exhibit poor behaviours such as stealing. For years, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has been working with children the world over, helping them cope with the trauma they are experiencing, whether from disaster or conflict. In Zimbabwe, volunteers at the Red Cross knew that children would make up the largest population at the Chingwizi transit camp, and worked quickly to make sure there was something for them to do, to keep them occupied, and to make the transition to their new homes as painless as possible.

The result? A well functioning playground where many of the children now spend their days, playing volleyball, netball or, for the younger kids, simply spending time on the see-saw and merry-go-round.

“With the large number of children at the camp, there isn’t enough space for all of them. Children come to the playground in shifts for a couple of hours at a time,” says Chipo. “We need another playground for them.” As the number of families at the transit camp grows daily, this playground will become even more crowded.

It is not just playtime they need to help escape the trauma. Chipo is concerned the disruption to the children’s education may have a longer lasting impact. “We need to ensure they don’t miss out on education,” she says. “We could have a temporary arrangement here. Our assessments show some teachers were also affected by the floods. They are here and could help provide the necessary education.”

With the an HIV prevalence rate of 18 per cent in Zimbabwe, Chipo is already involved in health education for the children, educating the younger ones about the dangers of early sex, and the older ones about HIV and AIDS.

In just several days, she has seen a marked improvement in the youngsters she has been monitoring. “The kids are now more relaxed. They are happy because they are no longer sitting indoors with their parents. They are enjoying the place more.”

An estimated 20,000 people have been affected by the current flooding, caused by unusually large amounts of rainfall. To assist the Zimbabwe Red Cross in supporting 3,500 of the most vulnerable, IFRC has released 263,518 Swiss francs from its Disaster Emergency Relief Fund. The funds will be used to provide support over three months in the form of shelter, first aid, access to safe water and psychosocial support.

“The line up never ends,” comments a first aid officer with the Zimbabwe Red Cross who is helping to maintain a 24/7 medical clinic at the Chingwizi transit camp. Next week on, we learn how volunteers, faced with inadequate medical supplies, improvise the kind of first aid they provide to thousands of flood affected families.