Child friendly spaces in refugee settlements in Uganda stimulating play and learning

“Through these activities, children learn beyond school and create safe friendships with each other,”

By Denis Jjuuko
child friendly spaces, child friendly schools, refugees, refugee children, South Sudan, Uganda, UNICEF, Save the Children, play, interacting, stimulating, learning, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Tibaweswa
11 February 2022

It is early afternoon in Dama Village in Palorinya Refugee Settlement Camp in Obongi District. Despite the blistering heat, the children continue to arrive at a facility that resembles a modern nursery school. 

Upon arrival, some gather under a huge tamarind tree and sit on the mats that have been laid out for them. Others go for old car tyres that are half fixed in the ground while a few find pleasure in the swing chairs — swinging as high as they could go. 

Care workers receive the children and take them through some routines — singing, dancing and reciting some poems. Soon after, some adults mainly women arrive. They are parents and guardians of some of the children. This is the Dama Child Friendly Space and Early Childhood Development Centre. 

child friendly spaces, child friendly schools, refugees, refugee children, South Sudan, Uganda, UNICEF, Save the Children, play, interacting, stimulating, learning, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Tibaweswa

Today’s poem is on violence against children with the main character being a child that was sexually violated when her parents sent her to a shop late in the evening. This poem is soon followed by another on peer pressure. 

Mathew Clement, a parent, has been listening attentively. “As parents, we have a role to play to provide safe places for our children and be in their lives in order to guide them so that they live meaningful lives,” he says. “That is what brings me here regularly,” he adds. 

Most of these children aged between three and 17 years are refugees who need social protection as well as psychosocial support. 

child friendly spaces, child friendly schools, refugees, refugee children, South Sudan, Uganda, UNICEF, Save the Children, play, interacting, stimulating, learning, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Tibaweswa

In the next village of Bongilo, children this time sit under a makeshift shade after their children friendly space was turned into a temporary treatment centre for COVID-19 patients, it is a beehive of activities. One group is using clay to mold animals, cars and anything imaginable while another is involved in arts and crafts. 

In another corner and under another tree, children are using materials such as plastic jerrycans, used plastic water bottles and buckets improvised as music instruments to create a merry and distinctive sound of music. At the sound of a whistle, the dancing pattern changes. Some parents and guardians watching from a distance are seen nonchalantly nodding their heads and their foot tapping the ground in approval while others cheerily clap. The song that has caught everyone’s attention is about togetherness regardless of where one comes from. It is an important message in a refugee settlement where sometimes violence has been previously committed based on one’s ethnicity or religion. 

child friendly spaces, child friendly schools, refugees, refugee children, South Sudan, Uganda, UNICEF, Save the Children, play, interacting, stimulating, learning, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Tibaweswa

Activities at these child friendly spaces are part of the Healing and Education through Art (Heart) programme, an approach that provides psychosocial support for children, youth, and adults around the world. Through this approach, “children are able to process and communicate feelings, experiences, or ideas in an emotionally supportive environment where they can connect with peers and caring adult facilitators,” reads a note about this approach. 

The activities at Dama and other child friendly spaces in Obongi District are supported by UNICEF Uganda with funding from the Dutch National Committee for UNICEF and implemented by Save the Children Uganda. 

These spaces have stopped children from loitering in the camps whenever they aren’t in school and have been able to socialize and learn from each other.

“Through these activities, children learn beyond school and create safe friendships with each other,”

says Nelson Akumbi, the Bongilo case worker.

“We have seen positive reaction from parents who also contribute to some of these local materials like clay that we use here,” he adds. 

These psychosocial interventions are important to stimulate play and learning and build trust and friendships and enable peer to peer engagement. “Children benefit from healing and learning out of these interventions giving them confidence and improving both their physical and emotional wellbeing,” explains Naome Akello, a case worker at Dama Children Friendly Space. 

With these interventions and many others, the future of approximately 120,000 child refugees in Obongi District looks bright.