Preventing a “Lost Generation”: How Play Fosters Resilience For Children Affected By Displacement

25.8.2019 | BY SARAH ALLEN

A surge of violence in Myanmar on August 25, 2017, led to a mass exodus of Rohingya families. Two years later, nearly a million Rohingya are living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, refugees in the largest refugee settlement in the world.

In a rapid needs assessment conducted by BRAC and the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University (Harvard FXB), researchers concluded, “It is of urgent importance that the Rohingya be furnished with the tools of self-reliance.” While the future is unclear for many Rohingya refugees, one thing is apparent: quality education will be foundational for building self-reliance in the youngest refugees. 

While the Rohingya largely lacked access to education in Myanmar—many Rohingya children were unable to attend school and those who were often faced poor classroom conditions and discrimination from teachers. Members of the Bangladeshi host community have also had limited educational opportunities. According to one poll, over 70 percent of Bangladeshi host community respondents 18 and older reported that they had either received no education or only some primary education.

Given the chaotic nature of the crisis, this trend threatens to continue in the next generation. According to the rapid needs assessment from BRAC and Harvard FXB, more than half of Rohingya children under 15 are not attending school, and about a third of children under 15 in the host community are not in school.

Despite tensions that have arisen overstrained resources, members of the host community want Rohingya children to be educated. According to new research exploring social cohesion between the refugee and host communities by BRAC University’s Center for Peace and Justice, host community members fear that a lack of educational opportunities for refugees could lead to a “lost generation” of Rohingya youth. They believe a strong educational foundation would equip refugees for the next generation of work, promote safety, and benefit the Rohingya community as well as their own.

Every child deserves an education. And as the Rohingya humanitarian crisis enters its third year, sustainable, resilience-building interventions like education have never been more crucial. 

BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs, an innovative play-based early learning model designed for the humanitarian context, is one solution that is fostering resilience in the youngest people affected by crisis, including refugees and members of the Bangladeshi host community. Here are three ways Humanitarian Play Labs help prevent a lost generation.


Lessons in Humanitarian Play Labs are structured around play, including physical play, songs, art, and games. Evidence indicates that play boosts brain development in the early years and can mitigate the impacts of toxic stress for children affected by crisis. © BRAC / Sarah Allen


  1. Stimulating brain development in the early years

Among the most vulnerable people in humanitarian settings are the smallest ones. Children ages zero to five make up 20 percent of the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar. During these early years, children’s brains are twice as active as adults – approximately 90 percent of brain development takes place by age five. 

Children who face protracted humanitarian crises are disproportionately exposed to high levels of stress over significant periods of time. This toxic stress can weaken the architecture of the developing brain, particularly for children under five, leading to lifelong barriers in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

Emerging evidence demonstrates that play-based learning may be one of the best ways to counteract toxic stress. Play is particularly impactful on brain development during the early years, boosting cognitive development, motor skills, social-emotional development, self-regulation, and motor skills. It can also promote resilience and establish a sense of normalcy for children affected by crisis. 

Humanitarian Play Labs situate play at the center of a child’s learning experience, helping children to become adaptive, resilient, and socially and emotionally literate adults who can navigate the adversities of poverty and conflict.


Facilitators forge close relationships with children’s families and caretakers, enabling them to support their healthy development beyond the confines of the Humanitarian Play Labs. © BRAC / Sarah Allen


  1. Engaging families and caretakers to build resilience

Each Humanitarian Play Lab is staffed with two facilitators, including one woman from the Rohingya community and one from the local host community, to facilitate direct interaction between the two communities and promote mutual understanding, acceptance, and social cohesion. Both women are well-known in their communities and maintain close relationships with families and caretakers, enabling them to advocate for the children’s education and support their healthy development beyond the confines of the classroom.

“The close engagement between facilitators, caretakers, and communities is a hallmark of the Humanitarian Play Lab model,” said Devon McLorg, Director of Education at BRAC USA. “Facilitators create a uniquely collaborative environment, helping families understand the importance of play and empowering them to invest in their children’s learning in the classroom and at home.”

Facilitators are also trained as barefoot counselors, and receive a foundation in child psychology. They learn to detect signs of psychological distress in the children and their families and, when necessary, refer more acute cases to BRAC’s network of para-counselors, psychologists, and other experts, depending on the severity of the case. Facilitators also focus on providing psychosocial support to new mothers, leading sessions on topics like managing stress and involving fathers in their baby’s development.

Children and their families help decorate Humanitarian Play Labs to echo elements of their home culture, for example, by sewing traditional cloth ceiling decorations. © BRAC / Sarah Allen


  1. Preserving cultural heritage into the next generation

BRAC works closely with local communities to co-develop its programs, engaging them from planning to implementation to evaluation, and Humanitarian Play Labs are no exception. The model is the result of extensive consultation with stakeholders, including the Rohingya and host communities, and especially the child participants. 

Humanitarian Play Labs were designed from the outside in, with the cultural context in mind. Bamboo structures that evoke local architectural styles provide a safe space for the youngest refugees. Inside, colorful, stimulating decorations and toys integrate elements of the Rohingya and host community cultures. Children and their families play a major role in making the spaces feel like their own, painting the walls and sewing traditional cloth decorations for the ceiling. For children, these shared activities create a sense of ownership of the space and, for their parents, a sense of investment in their child’s learning.

Beyond the design of the physical space, Humanitarian Play Labs reflect the heritage of the children they serve in other ways. For Humanitarian Play Labs serving refugee children, lessons are built by asking children what they enjoyed doing in Myanmar. Through songs, rhymes, games, and folk tales from their home culture, children remain connected to their heritage, providing a sense of familiarity, comfort, and normalcy. Over the past two years of creating lessons in this way, facilitators have compiled these features of Rohingya art and culture, and BRAC created an anthology to preserve them. 

Globally, more than 70 million people are now displaced—the highest number ever recorded. While the Humanitarian Play Lab model is improving the lives of children in Bangladesh, it also promises an adaptable and scalable model across a broader set of humanitarian contexts. 

As the humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar continues to impact hundreds of thousands of children and crises around the world threaten the futures of millions more, it has never been more important to provide safe, supportive, and culturally-contextualized learning environments for the youngest refugees to avert a lost generation.

To learn more about BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs, check out their innovation page.

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