Project Play was founded in August 2018 by volunteers working in northern France to support displaced communities sleeping in informal camps. On food distributions, friends Claire and Caia realized there was a stark lack of support and protection available to children and young people living in these informal camps in Dunkirk. They therefore decided to create a project to provide safe spaces and play for the children, with the goal of supporting their all-round well-being.
Project Play ran its first session in November 2018. To date, we have provided play at twelve different sites: six accommodation centres, a day-centre, a safe house and four informal camps. Project Play has worked with hundreds of children and run, on average, six sessions every week. We have welcomed and said goodbye to dozens of talented volunteers with a range of skills and expertise.
Displaced communities have found themselves on French soil for decades. In October 2016, the famous ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, which at its height was home to over 16,000 displaced people, was dismantled and demolished. There are currently around 900 people living in informal settlements across Calais and Dunkirk.
The policy of the French and British governments is to prevent formal camps from establishing again in Northern France. They do this through systematic evictions of living spaces and ongoing police harassment and violence. Between August 2018 and June 2019 there were 803 evictions in Calais and Dunkirk. Between 1st November 2017 and 1st of November 2018, associations recorded nearly 1,000 incidents of police violence against displaced people in Calais. Difficult past experiences combined with present-day police aggression and evictions take a large toll on children’s mental health and well-being.
Children living in informal camps and temporary accommodation centres in northern France are denied their right to an education. They live in inhumane conditions, with no access to state protection or support. They have undergone difficult journeys and now find themselves victim to police harassment and violence in France. For many families, the UK represents a last hope for safety and sanctuary and the only option to give their children a safe future. Many of the children we work with attempt regular crossings to the UK, which of course leads to further distress, disruption and poor health.
Our service aims to mitigate the impacts of ongoing trauma and to foster a sense of identity, agency and increased self-worth for the children we support. We do this through providing regular and consistent play sessions, with familiar faces and carefully planned out games and activities.
Our sessions involve structured activities followed by time for free play. We always begin our session with group circle games, so everyone can participate, get to know each other and feel welcome in our space.
We follow circle time with group activities, which are usually divided roughly by age group. These activities include arts and crafts, team-building games, construction challenges, sports games, educational sessions and science experiments. Each week the aim and theme of our main activities changes, from Nature to Science, Space to Drama.
After our main activity, we provide a range of free play options for children of all ages. Our most popular and regular free play options include wooden train sets, duplo, imaginative play sets (e.g. babies, doctors kits, dressing up), jewellery making and loom bands, colouring and drawing, cards and board games and sports equipment. When children are allowed to choose their play, they are given the opportunity to exercise autonomy and strengthen their identity. With a strong sense of identity and self-belief, children are far more resilient to adversity.
the power of play
“Play promotes creativity, imagination, self-confidence, self-efficacy and physical, social, cognitive and emotional strength and skills, and, as a protective process, can enhance adaptive capabilities and resilience”
- “Children’s Right to Play and the Environment”, The International Play Association, (2016),
Play is essential for any child’s well-being and development. For some of the most at risk children in Europe, it can be a lifeline. Through play, children practice essential life skills; they learn to interact and communicate, to express their emotions and to explore their creativity. Play also simply allows children to create positive memories; a fundamental part of any childhood.
Play helps young people become strong and independent individuals. Through play, children practice the skills for later life; they learn to interact and communicate, to express their emotions, to explore their creativity and to grow their physical abilities. Play helps them figure out what they like and don’t like and what they are good at. With a strong sense of identity and self-belief, children are far more resilient to trauma and adversity. Playing with others teaches children to relate to those around them, to understand themselves and the impact of their actions, as well as how other people’s actions make them feel. The children we work with need a space where they can build this social and emotional awareness, to help them cultivate healthy relationships and process and respond to distress. Imaginative and pretend play lets children try out different roles, reenact real-life scenarios and process fears and anxieties. Through imaginative play, children are offered the space to work through traumatic events in their lives, by re-enacting and reframing these events in play.
We know our service is needed because we can see its real-life benefits for the children we work with. The following case study, written by one of our past volunteers, illustrates how our service directly impacts the children we support:
We started working with Soran* in December 2018 at the accommodation centre where he was staying. When we first met Soran, it was clear he was struggling with emotional regulation and getting on with other children. Soran really struggled to communicate and make eye contact. He was unable to focus and often lashed out physically when he got frustrated or upset. He would never participate in group games and often seemed completely dissociated from his surroundings. It was incredibly rare to see him smile and when he did it appeared to be more of a grimace. Over three months of working with Soran we witnessed a gradual but noticeable change in his behaviour. He slowly began to engage with our volunteers and participate in one on one games. After some time, he then started to take part in circle games and activities with other children. He found activities that he really enjoyed doing, especially playdough, Connect 4 (with his own set of rules) and playing running games. Towards the end of our time with Soran, he had begun to speak to us, in both Kurdish and English. We realised he had made such great progress when he began to smile.
Though his transformation is one of the most notable we have seen, his story is not unusual. He is the perfect example of how the opportunity to play in a safe environment is what children need to process their experiences and build resilience against ongoing trauma.
*name has been changed to protect the identity of the child
Our commitment to anti-racism and inclusion
Project Play takes a definitive stance against racism in all its forms. We recognise Britain and France’s colonial histories and the direct impact this has had on migration and European border politics today. We recognise that White Saviorism and White Supremacy are prevalent within humanitarian work and we actively work against this. We are committed to constantly reflecting, learning and growing to be better anti-racists.
Project Play takes a definitive stance against all forms of systemic and everyday discrimination. We would like to make working with our project inclusive for everyone, but we know we have a lot more work to do. If you have any suggestions of how we can be more inclusive, thank you, and please get in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.