Play is an integral companion of childhood. Little brains grow with the help of their play time, learning colours and creativity, allowing children to better understand themselves and their world. Because playing comes naturally to children, even in the worst of circumstances, we will see them huddled together and break into play.
The resilience and agility of children's minds are remarkable. Given the right support and environment, children can bounce back from adversity. When thinking about helping children who have been abused, play's incredible ability in healing from trauma cannot be overlooked.
A child's brain will be approximately 80 percent the size of an adult brain by age three. By six years of age, the most significant part of one's cognitive development will have happened. While play can work wonders in helping children learn, it also plays a remarkable role in helping them heal.
The healing process for a child who has experienced abuse begins from reasserting the sense of security that was lost. How caregivers respond to a child's abuse has a tremendous impact on the potential for healing. A child's sense of safety and trust can be strengthened if their disclosure of abuse is accepted in a compassionate and supportive way. Play has shown to strengthen the parent-child bond, and when there is active participation from the child's caregivers during their play time, it can help bring back the feeling of being safe.
There is also play therapy, which utilises play time to gain insight into a child's mental state. Therapists can help the child explore their feelings and unresolved trauma. Healthy coping mechanisms are learned through the help of the therapist, as well as maneuvering around inappropriate behaviours.
In play, there is freedom. With so much of a child's day controlled by routine, how do they learn to exercise their own agency and creativity? The freedom in play time has immense positive effects in building - and rebuilding - young brains. This makes it a perfect ingredient to the healing process. Children not only experience an increased capacity to regulate their emotions and curb their undesirable behaviour, play time helps neutralise excess energy, enhance imagination and creativity, acquire trouble-shooting skills, and regain confidence. Best of all, play time lets children be children.
BRAC Institute of Educational Development (BRAC IED), in partnership with Lego Foundation, currently operates 304 Humanitarian Play Labs in the camps of Cox's Bazar, where children from the Rohingya refugee community learn and heal through play. These children had witnessed horror of unimaginable proportions. With careful planning and designing of the curricula, the Humanitarian Play Lab model was developed—giving the children plenty of time to play, sing, and learn in their native language. Evidence that the model was working was clear in the children's self-esteem, and how they engaged with others. And their drawings - some of which were once of the violence they had seen—were full of flowers, family, sunshine, and beautiful colours.
Abuse can leave scars to last an entire lifetime. When we're young, however, our ability to bounce back is much better than when we're older—but we need to receive an environment that nurtures that recovery. To be able to play and relax is not only crucial for our development, but is also the right of every child. When helping children heal from abuse, let them know that they are not at fault, that they are now safe, consider bringing them to see a specialist to help express themselves. And give them lots and lots of free, unstructured play time.