While working with Amurt Haiti, a local NGO based in Haiti this past March, I accompanied Dr. Jose Hidalgo of Boston’s Latin American Health Institute and a medical team of Haitian nurses and assistants to a small tent city in Port-au-Prince. There the team set up a makeshift clinic to attend to the overwhelming medical needs of the hundreds of people who had been forced to call that barren pile of broken glass, mud and rubble home. Using an old table and two chairs for an examination table, shaded by a jury-rigged plastic tarp, our small volunteer medical team saw hundreds of adults and children. Armed with nothing but their expertise and a suitcase full of donated medicines, they treated severe skin infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, ear infections and a host of other illnesses.
My own work was of a different nature. When I unrolled a colorful play parachute and gently invited a few children who were awaiting treatment to play, I was soon surrounded by more than seventy children who were desperately hungry to join hands and play. For over an hour we joyfully participated in simple games of singing, sharing, imagination and laughter. I saw this remarkable response repeated in other camps as well. Sick, hungry, thirsty, surrounded by physical signs of devastation and traumatized by loss, the children could not resist the desire to play, connect, move together and express joy.
The experience illustrates the critical, complementary work required to begin to rebuild a devastated Haiti. While medical relief efforts must continue to heal broken bones and massive construction projects are needed to rebuild entire communities, attention must also be given to healing and strengthening children whose lives have been deeply impacted by fear and trauma. After all, Haiti’s future, perhaps to a greater extent than any other nation’s, is in the hands of its children. Children under eighteen years of age comprise approximately half of Haiti’s population of over 9 million and have been disproportionally impacted by the tragedy, with many homeless and suffering the loss of parents as well as entire families. The acute trauma of natural disaster has now been added to lives already damaged by the chronic trauma of extreme poverty. Amazingly, Haitian children can almost manage to mask this enormous pain with their loving smiles. But a closer look, especially when they don’t suspect they are being observed, reveals the pain. It runs deep. It waits to be addressed.
Play is an essential part of the healing process for children suffering from overwhelming loss and trauma. Empowering, joyful play guided by sensitive, caring adults can restore what trauma violently strips from a child — trust, connection, empowerment, creativity, and feelings of joy and optimism. These are the ingredients necessary to learn and grow into healthy, happy and productive adults. For the past decade my team and I, first as part of a grassroots organization called Project Joy, and now as the action arm of the Life is good Kids Foundation, have been training and supporting thousands of local, frontline childcare providers and medical professionals who use playful engagement to help the most vulnerable children heal. Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, in Denmark where child refugees of war in Iraq and Afghanistan try to recover from the terror and destruction of those conflicts, and in dozens of communities across America where violence and poverty prevail, these frontline care providers are experiencing the restorative power of joyful play on the hearts and minds of the children in their care.
Our team is working to apply this learning to Haiti by equipping Haitian youth workers and other relief personnel with the tools and means to heal and strengthen children through joyful play. We implore strategic planners and policymakers with greater resources and capacity than we possess not to overlook this critical point. With proper medical care, physical wounds will heal. With proper tending to the social and emotional needs of children, including their unquenchable desire to engage in joyful play, the wounds of trauma can heal as well, allowing the present generation of Haitian children to assume the lead role in the successful long-term development of their long-suffering yet astonishingly optimistic nation.