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Laughing and learning

By Agyatmitra

Play For Peace works with children from communities in conflict, using cooperative play to bring them laughter and return to them their right to childhood

Play For Peace (PFP), a global organisation now in its 10th year, brings together children and young people from communities in conflict, using cooperative play to bring about laughter, peace and compassion. As part of its community development initiatives, PFP uses play to promote relationships among people whose communities suffer from a history of cross-cultural tension.

PFP facilitates the creation of a non-threatening, safe environment that allows children to connect through the language of innocence. When children relate and laugh, there is no fear, and compassion and peace are born.

PFP’s aim is to build a tolerant and inclusive world for children. Children will then have access to their rights, or at least a space where they can recognise their rights and feel safe enough to talk about them.

PFP began its pilot project in Pune, India. The organisation’s early experiences in orphanages, remand homes, with children from HIV-affected families, taught it the value of cooperative games. The children didn’t need to know the people concerned; it didn’t matter what language they spoke, what they looked like. They played and connected. And in the end, they were unwilling to let go of their hands! PFP realised then that games are the language of children, and that children have a right to be spoken to in a language they best understand.

Moving on from Pune, PFP began work in Hyderabad. The old city of Hyderabad had seen so much communal disturbance in the ’80s and ’90s that it came to be known as the ‘city of curfews’.

What happens when children take to violence as if it’s natural? What happens when teachers use violence as a primary method to control children? Children go to schools where they are with children only from their religion; they have no space to experience diversity.

In Hyderabad, children would come to play even at 2 pm in the heat of the summer afternoon. As communities here are polarised, the children were brought together to play only after play sessions were conducted with them for three to six months. They connected within minutes and played together as if they were friends, at a level that had nothing to do with their communal identities.

Creating non-threatening environments

In Hyderabad, youth volunteers from the community took the project to schools. Youth leader Imroz conducted her first play session at her own school. But once she was inside the school, her usual confidence vanished. For her, the nightmare of being a student at the school came alive the moment she saw the teachers. She recalled all the beatings and the humiliation she had experienced.

The question we must ask ourselves is: what about children who are emotionally scarred but have no access to empathetic adults, no experiences to help them deal with their pain?

Unlike most other forms of training, PFP doesn’t ask anyone to be ‘intelligent’ or even ‘serious’. One of the most common responses to its programmes is “when we heard of training we thought we would have to sit through the whole day listening to some lectures. But this is different. We played like this after many years”.

Education/learning is a serious matter that somehow gets translated into words like ‘pay attention’, ‘don’t laugh’, ‘sit quietly’. This makes most education a one-way process instead of an exchange. PFP operates out of the conviction that if you are not having fun, there is nothing you will learn.
In genocide land

PFP went to Ahmedabad as part of a team sent by the Hyderabad Peace Initiative, three months after the worst state-sponsored communal riots targeted at Muslims pushed more than 100,000 people into relief camps. For three days, they went from one relief camp to another absorbing the pain and the horror. The group did not know what it could offer people at the relief camps. Everyone said: “They have suffered the worst experiences in their lives, don’t try and play games with them.”

After three days, PFP finally decided to follow its convictions. At a camp in Jamalpur, they gathered 15-20 children and started playing. When they finished, every single child in the camp had joined in, and there was a second circle of mothers around them. Many jumped and danced with joy. Later they told us: “After three months we are seeing our children laugh like this. Thank you so much.”

The laughter and fun they had in those 45 minutes was the most serious work PFP has done so far! At the end of their seven days in Ahmedabad, children’s laughter could be heard at many relief camps all over the city.

Children have a right to their childhood. During disasters there is a lot of focus on relief, rehabilitation and trauma counselling. How much and what kind of attention children get is a question that requires serious consideration.

Play is how children communicate and socialise. If, after a disaster, children are brought together to play they will move faster on the road to recovery.  

In Christ’s land, Israel

We live in a difficult world where increasing competition adversely impacts on children’s growth. Parents are more worried about how successful their children will be as adults, rather than whether they are happy as children. So much so that many adults think the concept of play is outdated.

There is a need to distinguish between organised sports and games children play. Sports have a structure that is defined by market forces; games are played by children and are flexible, based on their needs at the time. So, when PFP volunteered to go to Israel to work with its partner, Jerusalem International YMCA, it was told that just games was not enough. Everyone they met said: “Children have their computers here, their swimming classes, and everything they want. We are not sure if just games will hold their attention.”

Six months later, when it was time for them to return, everyone said: “You have to come back, six months is not enough.”

PFP worked with children, teachers, school principals, teacher trainers and activists from the Jewish Arab co-existence network. The response from teachers and school principals was very positive and the games were quickly translated into Hebrew. Play festivals were organised where Jewish and Arab children came together and played games.

How a conflict affects the rights of an individual is best seen in the effect the conflict has on children. Most of the time conflicts are seen as adult issues, with the children as victims. These children are expected to become responsible adults, again overlooking their immediate right to be children. Teachers often become desensitised towards violence, and violence becomes a part of children’s play.

The people at PFP are often asked: “So, what language do you use? Did you find it difficult to work in Israel where people understand only Hebrew or Arabic?” The response is: “Games are universal; they are not bound by language.” In schools where they worked with children, even though the children did not sometimes remember their names, they called them by the names of the games they played with them!

(Agyatmitra has been with Play For Peace since its inception in India in 2000)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007