Why playgrounds should be part of all refugee shelters

Play areas offer a place for leisure and positive interactions between children and families. Especially for families going through the difficult experience of adjusting to life as a refugee, the opportunity to move and play outdoors and meet others can be an important mental health strategy.

Boa Vista, the capital of Brazil’s most northerly state – Roraima, in the Amazon, is actively trying to improve its urban environment for young children. It is part of the Urban95 network, involving a multi-year partnership strategy with urban planners, architects, engineers and city managers to incorporate a focus on early childhood in city planning and management.

Photo: Courtesy of Camila Ignacio Geraldo - ACNUR

Boa Vista is experiencing an influx of migrants as it is close to the border with Venezuela, one of the world’s largest sources of cross-border displacement. Refugee shelters often are considered to be temporary accommodation, so they are not equipped with public space – including places to play. However, children can spend their entire childhoods in these environments.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation partnered with UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – and AVSI Brasil (Associação Voluntários para o Serviço Internacional) to construct early childhood-focused public spaces in three refugee shelters in Boa Vista. The project brought together for the first time partners from the national government and the municipality of Boa Vista with civil society and the UNHCR.

In the words of Jose Egas, the UNHCR’s representative in Brazil:
“For a refugee child or adolescent, forced displacement can be traumatic. Parks and leisure areas encourage cognitive, social and self-esteem development.”

Photo: Courtesy of AVSI Brasil

Designing playgrounds in consultation with children

The municipality’s infrastructure team intentionally designed the new public spaces to support young children’s cognitive and motor development. Incorporating recycled materials where possible, they feature rainbow-coloured visuals, structures such as obstacles, pyramids and tunnels, and different textures including sand, concrete and vinyl surfaces to add sensory dimensions. They also provide areas to play sports.

The locations for the three playgrounds – refugee shelters called Rondon 1, Rondon 3 and Pricumã – were selected based on the number of families with children. At the time of writing, the playgrounds had served at least 1300 refugee children.
Before designing the playgrounds, project workers asked young migrant children about how they like to play. They conducted around 200 interviews and separate workshops with children aged up to 2, 3–4 and 5–6 years.

Photo: Courtesy of AVSI Brasil

Building on a public space for the whole community

The playgrounds are not only used by young children, but have become public spaces valued by the whole community: older children play soccer in the areas set aside for sport, parents use the benches to sit and chat while their children play, and older adults use the area for exercise. Community members have taken responsibility for upkeep of the playgrounds.

Building on the playgrounds, the Foundation is currently working with AVSI and the national Ministry of Citizenship on a methodology to promote early childhood development inside the shelters through group interventions for pregnant women and mothers of young children. We are also investing in the development of a national protocol to guide municipalities on integrating refugees in their services.