Supporting refugee children through play in Bangkok

Cutting through the isolation of the pandemic, refugee children immersed themselves in a sustainably built and specially designed playground.

A child immerses himself in the day's activities at PlanToys' "Forest of Play" in Bangkok, Thailand, on 7 January 2022.
© UNHCR/Duangmon Sujatanond

For Mateo*, 7 January was a special day. That day, he not only turned four years old, but was able to celebrate by spending the day alongside other refugee children at the “Forest of Play”, a specially designed playground for children.


To mark Thailand’s National Children’s Day, PlanToys, a local sustainable toy manufacturer, opened the doors to their “Forest of Play” playground to 31 refugee children. The “Give Through Play” event in Bangkok was organized in collaboration with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

The first years of a child’s life are marked by developmental milestones such as taking their first steps, clapping their hands and saying their first words. Experiences and relationships stimulate them.

PlanToys’ playground has been conceptualized to focus on children’s physical and cognitive development. Using specially designed wooden toys, the playground includes spaces to encourage imagination, exercise motor skills, advance problem-solving skills and explore senses with music, shapes, and colours.

“He does not talk to anyone, not even with his family.”

The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s daily lives during the past two years. Urban refugees have been particularly vulnerable and refugee children have not been spared. Limited interaction and activities outside the house have hindered opportunities for personal growth, including for very young children like Mateo.

“Mateo has delayed speech development,” explains his mother, Shanvi*. “He is four years old today; he never goes to play outside the house with his sister. He does not talk to anyone, not even with his family.”

“We have tried to seek medical care, but we cannot financially support his long-term needs. We neither have the space nor the tools at home for him to play and learn fundamental skills.”

However, on that day in PlanToys’ playground, the quiet Mateo bloomed into a joyful child, hopping from one area to another to make sure he could see and play with everything – and, more notably, with everyone.  

UNHCR actively promotes the enrolment of refugee children in school. This helps ensure that they are not limited to the walls of their homes, that they engage with Thai neighbours and have a better chance to realize their future potential. Although each child develops at their own pace, many refugee children do not receive age-appropriate support for their development needs. This is especially the case during early childhood – from birth to 6 years old – before they are eligible for school.

Pawinee Parnitudom is a UNHCR staff member who specializes in child protection:

“When I’m providing counselling to refugees, they often tell me they do not allow children to go play in outdoor playgrounds,” Pawinee explains. “They are worried that their children might break something, which would lead to an additional cost that their family cannot afford. Refugees constantly think within a framework of mitigating risks.”

Given these challenges, the generous support from PlanToys provided a rare, and much-welcomed opportunity for refugee children in the city.

Refugee families discovering PlanToys' "Forest of Play" in Bangkok, Thailand, on 7 January 2022.  © UNHCR/Duangmon Sujatanond

During the “Give Through Play” event, PlanToys’ child specialist, Juntaravimon Jaiareerob and UNHCR’s child protection team conducted a short assessment on the needs of each child who visited the “Forest of Play” playground. They observed how the child played alone and with their parents to assess family dynamics and parenting styles. Based on the short assessment and consultation with their parents, each child received a toy adapted to their developmental needs.   

This is the first year that PlanToys and UNHCR organized the “Give Through Play” event for refugee children in Bangkok. The company had previously donated  toys to UNHCR to establish a toy library at the Bangkok Refugee Center, a UNHCR partner, and expand access to toys for refugee children in the community.

PlanToys manufactures their toys with minimized environmental impact, with their production using renewable materials, as well as supporting reforestation programmes. Their mission thus has a holistic approach and considers the welfare of today’s children and the environment of tomorrow’s adults.

“We look forward to help support refugees in the long term,” said Kosin Virapornsawan, Managing Director at PlanToys. “We hope that refugee children not only benefit from our wooden toys to grow their imagination and creativity, but we would also like to raise awareness about protecting the environment and the importance of a sustainable lifestyle.”

Towards the end of their day at the PlanToys playground, Mateo’s mother looked at him, content to see him enjoying his new toy.

When Pawinee asked for feedback on how to improve the event, she burst out with a big smile. “Nothing, everything was perfect!”

 

*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality