Child-friendly spaces in emergencies

A child-friendly space is a safe place set up for children affected by emergencies.

It may look very different in different contexts – it could be a tent, a fenced-off area under the shade of a tree, or a room used specifically for this purpose, but it should always be safe and accessible to children of different genders, ages and abilities.

Child-friendly spaces are established to provide a safe, predictable, and stimulating environment where children can play and participate in recreation, leisure and learning activities designed to support their resilience and wellbeing.

Children in Burkina Faso at one of Plan International's child-friendly spaces.

What do children do at child-friendly spaces?

Child-friendly spaces offer a range of activities for children, tailored to various age groups. There are fun, recreational activities such as games, sports, singing and drama as well as structured play, arts and crafts and resilience and life skills.

They provide non-formal education and learning activities which are important for children whose education has been disrupted by crisis.

Children are encouraged to take part in activities such as creative play, group discussions, story-telling and drama that allow them to express their feelings and explore any problems they might be having. Often children experience fear, grief, loss and uncertainty during a crisis or displacement and these activities provide a safe space where they can process their experiences.

Girls take part in a game at a child-friendly space in the Centre-North of Burkina Faso. 

“In the afternoon I come to the child-friendly space. I’ve made friends. We play together. As girls we need this. We forget what has been happening [in South Sudan]. My favourite thing to do with other girls, is to make things with beads. And I like volleyball – I’m good at volleyball.”

– Nya Bahn, 12, Ethiopia

Why are child-friendly spaces important for children affected by emergencies or displacement?

Emergencies, displacement, and crises cause turmoil and uncertainty for many children. Against this backdrop, child-friendly spaces provide a safe space for children to be children; to play, explore, laugh with their friends, interact with trusted adults, and have a place they know they can go to for help.

A child-friendly space provides routine and stability that is important for children’s recovery in the aftermath of a crisis. Group activities provide opportunities for children to come together in a predictable and stimulating environment to be safe, to learn, to express themselves, to make connections and to feel supported. It is well recognised that children’s regular and consistent engagement in group activities can positively impact their well-being, enhance their resilience and reduce their stress.

Regular contact with children at a child-friendly space allows protection workers to observe children and identify those who are vulnerable or experiencing abuse, neglect, exploitation or violence and provide necessary support and appropriate referrals. It also provides the opportunity to identify children who are experiencing severe distress and might be in need of more specialised support, and refer them to the relevant services.

Nya Bahn, 12, originally from South Sudan, plays volleyball at a child-friendly space in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
Nya Bahn, 12, originally from South Sudan, plays volleyball at a child-friendly space in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

What does psychosocial support for children in emergencies entail?

Plan International provides mental health and psychosocial support to children and their families to help them deal with the psychological effects of emergencies.

Mental health and psychosocial support can help children, families and communities to cope with the impacts of traumatic events or prolonged stress and to build supportive social structures. When access to essential services, family and community support, and security are restored, the majority of people will regain normal functioning. Mental health and psychosocial support requires a multi-layered system of complimentary support across sectors, ranging from basic services to specialised care

The emphasis in psychosocial support is not on children’s and adolescents’ vulnerabilities – instead, it focuses on how children and adolescents can actively protect themselves in the face of adversity, and strengthen their resilience.

Structured activities at child-friendly spaces help children to explore their feelings and challenges they are facing because of the emergency. Often, helping children understand their reactions and articulate their feelings will help alleviate worry that there is something wrong with them, and see that they are experiencing a normal response to abnormal events in their lives.

Having a safe space to ask questions and correct misinformation can help reduce their stress. Other activities that help children deal with psychological effects of emergencies include having a regular routine, playing and building relationships with others, developing their resilience through learning new skills, and partaking in group activities.

Children affected by Hurricane Iota paint pictures at a child-friendly space in Bilwi, Nicaragua. –

Children affected by Hurricane Iota paint pictures at a child-friendly space in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

Where does Plan International currently host child-friendly spaces?

Plan International has used child-friendly spaces in a range of different crises and emergencies, including acute and protracted, refugee, internally displaced, conflict, natural disasters, and/or complex humanitarian crises.

For example, in areas affected by conflict such as South Sudan and Central African Republic, in areas affected by natural disaster such as drought in Ethiopia and typhoons in the Philippines, and in refugee settings – both urban settings where refugees establish themselves eg. through community centres in Poland, or at border crossing points as refugees wait to cross and register.

We also host child-friendly spaces in hard-to-reach areas, when populations are on the move or if there are access restrictions. Countries where we currently implement mobile child-friendly spaces include Bangladesh, Colombia, Myanmar and Nigeria.