From a child’s perspective, play is free, self-controlled and self-initiated, voluntary, natural and unlimited, spontaneous, active, and fun (Wiltz and Fein, 2006). Play involves pretending, making up and following rules, learning to negotiate and compromise, and using objects symbolically, allowing children to take risks in a safe space. It tends to focus on the process, not the end product. It also allows children to control an experience which is important, especially in a context where they can’t control much else.
Play is important for children’s learning and academic outcomes, and for their holistic development. It can have a positive impact on children’s emotional wellbeing as it may reduce depression, anxiety, aggression, and sleeping problems (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005). Play may enhance children’s adaptive systems, affecting their wellbeing, resilience and health (Lester and Russell, 2010), and this can be especially important for children who have experienced forced displacement.
Children enjoy playing in environments where they can experience novelty, excitement and fun, but where they also feel a sense of security and stability (Henricks, 2006). Rasmussen (2004) distinguishes between ‘places for children’ and ‘children’s places’. Places for children are those that have been designed, built and organised by adults for children, whereas children’s places are places that children attribute special meaning to, places that they themselves choose, use, define and create.
Children’s places may or may not be identical to places created by adults for children. While adults may build places for children such as playgrounds, these places may not meet children’s needs. Children should therefore be actively involved in designing and planning spaces that are meant for children. Importantly, children’s places encourage and support space for imagination and growth. A developing child will discover a growing identity over time, but the space provides an anchor for memory and serves as an identifiable location for play (and sometimes comfort), which is very important for children in displaced contexts.
Interventions aimed at promoting play should ensure enough unpredictability and flexibility, but also security in the environment so that children can play freely. However, adults should be careful not to destroy ‘children’s places’ by pursuing their own agendas, by planning without children’s input, or by creating play spaces and programmes that control children’s play and segregate them. When children’s spaces are not sufficiently understood and respected, they can be inadvertently and easily destroyed. In vulnerable contexts, most play friendly children’s places are informal, not originally designed for play. Often the best intervention is to recognise the importance of such spaces and to protect them. Finally, it is important to highlight that children should be allowed to play safely in all kinds of urban spaces, and that play should not be confined to specially designed areas.