On a recent visit to Kerala, we witnessed first-hand the floods and the devastating effect it had across all levels of society. While others loaded boats with food, water and essential medicines, we… played with the children. The reason? Because play is what children do, so when everything else they knew had been taken away, what was left for them? A chance to play, a chance to feel joy and a sense of control in the face of an uncontrollable nightmare unfolding around them.
Adults measure the impact of a natural disaster such as the Kerala flooding in the loss of lives and property. That means we assign our energies and resources to deal with the most immediate problems: shelter, healthcare, food and clean water. But what about the children who always bear the brunt of any crisis? For them, it’s not just a question of the immediate impact of the loss of people, property and livelihoods. The long-term effects are profound and far-reaching, too, as they lose the opportunity for being themselves – they lose the opportunity to be children.
The crisis in Kerala, as just one example, threatens the security of the thousands of children caught up in it, and damages the very factors that enable a child to develop normally. Secure, loving relationships and the chances of education are taken away and replaced by high stress as part of their daily routine. In some ways, they shift into the very worst of the adult world. Giving them a chance to play and to be children again changed this, and gave them much-needed reassurance
So, what can a Developmental Play practitioner do in such circumstances? Working alone, not much. But working together with all the services that kick in to support children in natural disasters, a lot. So, yes, the child caught up in a disaster needs food and shelter, healthcare and clean water. But they also need to play.
Developmental Play practitioners must work alongside the aid agencies and NGOs delivering vital services. They cannot be there as a ‘nice to have’ add-on. Instead, the play that is the natural behaviour of children needs to be hard-wired through all the different kinds of support that aid agencies and NGOs deliver. Play becomes an overarching theme for all the help the children get.
This way, at the same time as dealing with the immediate and pressing needs, the interventions also maintain the foundations for the child’s future development. Currently, a focus on immediate help—while essential, of course—runs the risk of ‘kicking the can further down the road’, or delaying the problems that children who are forced to deal with the challenges that accompany natural disasters face. With support from Developmental Play practitioners, a disaster can be an opportunity for these children to emerge stronger for the long-term and not just survive for the short term.