Boosting Child Mental Health Through the Power of Play

March 14, 2024

Children playing together during a War Child's TeamUp session
Children living with the brutal effects of armed conflict are forced to manage difficult emotions - such as feelings of fear, distress and uncertainty. Many are refugees living far from home in unstable situations. Some psychological support is available - yet research suggests that simple play-based activities could play a vital role in boosting these children’s wellbeing. We look at the evidence…

The impact of war and forced displacement extends far beyond any physical effects. Children experience fear, stress, anger, anxiety and other harmful emotions that stay with them long after they find sanctuary. And while vital basic needs - such as food, water and shelter - are readily available in asylum centres and refugee settlements, the psychological needs of children are all too often unmet.

Augmenting available services

Mental health services can be accessed at these locations - but they often fail to meet the significant and singular needs of conflict-affected children. War Child lead researcher Alexandra Bleile explains further…

“Children from different places, ethnicities, languages and backgrounds are suddenly brought together in a foreign environment and expected to keep their heads above ground,” she says.

“It’s no wonder research findings demonstrate the prevalence of emotional and behavioural disorders among refugee children arriving in Europe. Authorities are not blind to this challenge - usually refugee camps or reception centres will have a drop-in psychologist. But the available interventions tend to be based on verbal and cognitive psychotherapy methods - and frequently don’t address language and other cultural barriers.”

Building an evidence base

Practitioners have sought to bridge this gap - which is where the idea of augmenting existing approaches with play and movement activities comes in. Movement and facilitated play certainly have the potential to improve children’s health and psychosocial wellbeing - but the available evidence base to support this premise is currently scarce.

UNICEF is currently investigating the benefits of sports-led approaches through its Playing the Game initiative - which also incorporates research from War Child’s Research & Development department. War Child contributes to the report with research into the efficacy of the play-based TeamUp intervention.

TeamUp is a suite of structured recreational, movement-based activities led by trained facilitators - and research has been key to the intervention from the beginning. “Rather than just putting our idea out into the world and hoping it works, we’ve been piloting, evaluating and testing the method since its inception,” Bleile explains.

One recent evaluation was conducted across 15 asylum reception centres in the Netherlands. The study drew on contributions from 22 teams of facilitators and 2,183 refugee children from counties including Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

“While one key way in which we collected data was by measuring session attendance and facilitators’ competencies when implementing TeamUp, we also drew upon qualitative interviews with children, facilitators and centre staff,” explains Bleile.

“Seeing a young girl in Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee settlement laugh and embrace the same routine as a boy in an asylum centre in Drenthe - that sight never gets old."
Alexandra Bleile, War Child Lead Researcher
Team Up voor gevluchte kinderen in Nederland

Research findings show that TeamUp is increasing children's overall feeling of safety in the Netherlands

Signs of promise

The interviews with children, in particular, indicated several promising outcomes. Children reported general feelings of safety, valuable moments to interact and connect with their peers, improved self-regulation and behaviour, increased interaction with other children and increased feelings of agency.

Yet while qualitative interviews clearly confirmed positive feelings from all stakeholders, several challenges were also identified - particularly fluctuating attendance and challenging behaviour on the part of some children. Programme adaptations to address these challenges will be explored, together with efforts to prioritise the inclusion of minority groups such as children with disabilities.

Children in 25 different countries can currently take part in TeamUp activities - and enjoy positive feelings wherever they are. “Seeing a young girl in Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee settlement laugh and embrace the same routine as a boy in an asylum centre in Drenthe - that sight never gets old,” says Bleile.

“The joy and calm children experience from being in the moment is universal.”