Uganda now hosts the third largest number of refugees in the world, hosting over 1.3 million refugees (UNHCR, 2020). Overall, 57% of early years children in refugee hosting areas of Uganda are not attending Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres (UNICEF, 2017). These refugee children are missing out on all the essential benefits of early years education which ensures they are able to recover from traumatic experiences, are ready for primary education, and can grow up to become well-developed adults. These children have lost the stability of their home, their country and for some, their loved ones too – their early experiences robbing them of their childhood.

The delivery of East African Playgrounds programme has expanded in response to this crisis, to help some of the most vulnerable children in the world recover through play. We now deliver our play programme, including the installation of play facilities for children, and training for teachers and communities, in Early Child Development centres in refugee settlements across Uganda, supported by our partners including UNICEF and Plan International.

Uganda now hosts the third largest number of refugees in the world

There are an estimated 861,590 (UNHCR, 2019) South Sudanese refugees in Uganda and 63% of refugees from South Sudan are children (UNHCR, 2017),  many with special needs including learning difficulties, physical disabilities and emotional difficulties caused by trauma. These children have had their worlds turned upside down. They have travelled hundreds of miles from their homes, lost family members and many have experienced violence themselves. They don’t understand fully what is happening, or why. Some may even have made the journey alone.  

Once they reach the settlements, families slowly begin to rebuild their lives. Food, water and other supplies are provided. There are even some limited educational facilities. But, these traumatised children are missing out on something essential that’s so often forgotten, especially when other needs come first – the chance to play. With such limited space, there often are no play facilities or child friendly areas. 

Refugee settlement temporary school

Play for child refugees 

Play is incredibly important for these child refugees, especially those who have experienced trauma. Uganda’s refugee settlements are a diverse mixture of cultures, ethnic groups and tribes, with many languages. Play breaks down barriers between these groups, and helps to build a sense of community and support for children, reducing anxiety and helping them resolve internal and external conflict.

With vast numbers of refugees flooding the settlements, a child’s chance to play is restricted due to time, space and the lack of stimulating environments. A child also needs the acknowledgment of the importance of play, that this is an activity that is allowed. This is why playgrounds play such an important role, as it is a structure built specifically with and for children, showing them the importance of play and giving them their own area to create, explore and discover. For children like these who have experienced trauma, play is important to help them process their experiences in a safe way.

Refugee children’s futures are profoundly impacted by the lack of safe play facilities to heal, learn and develop. Play is vital for the development of everything from social skills, cognitive abilities, and problem solving to fine motor skills and creativity. Without play, refugee children’s potential for a brighter future is severely limited. 

Research has also suggested that educators in ECD centres across Uganda struggle to use appropriate play-based teaching methods to help children learn effectively. According to DFID (2018), early years educators in conflict-affected communities often depend on repetition-based teaching approaches which achieve only rote learning rather than critical engagement, leading to only ineffective surface-level learning which cannot be applied more broadly.

A lack of educational opportunities and unresolved trauma can have a negative and lasting impact on the future mental and physical health and employment prospects of refugee children.

Our work

East African Playgrounds is working to ensure that every child refugee has quality education and a safe and engaging place to play.

We are now undertaking major projects in Uganda’s refugee settlements, where there is a huge need for safe play facilities and good quality early years education for children. These refugee children fleeing the war in South Sudan have lost the stability of their home, their country and for some, their loved ones too – their early experiences robbing them of their childhood. They need the essential benefits of play and effective early years education to ensure they are able to recover from traumatic experiences, are ready for primary education, and can grow up to become well-developed adults.

We’re really excited to have secured a major match funding opportunity over the next few months. The UK Government have agreed to contribute towards our work in 2020, matching £ for £ any grant or donation made between 1st March and 31st May 2020. We are aiming to raise an ambitious target of £300,000, which will enable us to increase access to early years education for 27,000+ preschool refugee children through play-based learning activities and the installation of safe and exciting playground facilities at early childhood development centres in Bidibidi refugee settlement, Uganda, which is the size of the city of Birmingham. Find out more about the UK Aid Match campaign here.

In addition to our UK Aid Match, we also have an active UK Aid Direct grant which uses the Playgrounds as a tool to increase access to early childhood development (ECD) education in Uganda’s refugee settlements. This is a three year programme where we will be working within 59 refugee and host communities across Uganda to install community-designed playgrounds and deliver training to teachers and parents on the importance of play. This programme will improve the quality of ECD provision for enrolled children, and enrolment is expected to increase.

Case study

Many children in refugee settlements such as Bidibidi arrive unaccompanied and have experienced severe trauma in their short lives. When parents and caregivers are absent, child-headed households are common and play is limited and all too often non-existent. Children like Peter can benefit hugely from access to play, meaning he and others like him can get their childhoods back. Here is what Peter’s social worker told us:

When we first met Peter, he was always on guard – he carried a sharpened stick around with him for protection and did not interact with the other children at all. We started to take him to the playground regularly, and over time he started to play. He would go down the slide, or play on the swings, but always with his stick. Over the course of a few weeks, he started to put his stick down more and more often, and eventually left it behind completely! But the most incredible surprise was the day he started bringing his sister, Grace, to the playground with him– he introduced her to other children, and spent the whole day laughing and smiling. The two of them are amongst the last to leave the playground each day now. Seeing that transformation in Peter was incredible – he has his childhood back.

Our evaluation showed that the playground displayed full refugee/host integration as well as an equal gender balance. Increases were further seen in social skills (71% of communities), physical skills (57%), cognitive skills (14%) and creative skills (15%) whilst there was also a decrease in anti-social behaviour (43%).  ECD centre attendance also increased.

A teacher said ‘‘We have already seen an increase in attendance at the centre in anticipation for the playground opening, it is wonderful that the children have an extra incentive to come to learn, the playground will really add to the teaching abilities of the centre.”

By implementing our play and playground programme we can start to work to rebuild these children’s lives through the language they know best - play. 

Each playground we build will benefit 1,500 children during its lifetime. With your help, we can reach more children. 

Child refugees swinging on a swing

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