Playing for hope: Investigating the success of physical activity in alleviating the post traumatic struggles of child refugees by Eilidh MacGilp

Eilidh has recently graduated from the MA Physical Education programme at the University of Edinburgh. In the summer of 2018, she worked at a refugee camp in Greece to develop a daily sports programme for the children living on the camp. For her final year research investigation, she documented the impact that this programme had on the lives of those young people.

Playing for hope: Investigating the success of physical activity in alleviating the post traumatic struggles of child refugees

One of the most striking realities of our time is the sharp and continuous rise in the number of people worldwide forced to flee their homes as a result of war, natural disaster, torture and other systematic human rights violations (UNHRC, 2018). Approximately 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, with children making up 51% of this population (Nocon et al., 2017). UNICEF recognise the risk of these young people becoming the ‘lost generation’ as a serious concern (UNICEF, 2013). Denied the fundamental means to guarantee a healthy psycho-social development, it has been well documented that children exposed to war and violence are more likely to develop mental health problems (Nocon et al., 2017).

In 2018, I recognised an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge gained through studying Physical Education at The University of Edinburgh to improve mental health, develop resilience and assist social integration in refugee children through sport. In preparation for teaching at a refugee camp in Greece over the summer, I carried out an extensive review of the literature relating to trauma informed disaster interventions. From this, I created a trauma- informed multi- activity sports program called Play for Hope that aimed to prepare young people with the skills and knowledge to thrive in a foreign land and to support their healthy psychosocial development. This programme involved daily yoga sessions, framed with the evaluation and discussion of emotions and feelings. We also organised football and volleyball training which focused on goal setting, critical thinking and cooperation. This slowly built up to weekly tournaments, carefully monitored and supported with ‘cool down’ areas for conflict management. Moreover, there were several culturally intrinsic activities in the programme, including playground games common in Iraq and Syria.

For my final year research investigation on the MA Physical Education Programme at the University of Edinburgh, I aimed to explore the experiences of young people from the perspectives of the teachers. I chose not to interview the young people directly at this stage due to language barriers and their current levels of vulnerability to stress and anxiety. Using qualitative methods, including face to face teacher interviews, graphic elicitation and participant observations, I gathered data relating to the young refugees engagement in the daily sessions for a 2 month period

The results of this study initially highlighted the prevalence of inter-cultural conflict that existed on the camp, resulting in physical altercations and violent outbursts. The development of social competencies including emotional regulation and conflict resolution through Play for Hope was seen to lead to more positive outcomes, with the perception that there were fewer violent outbursts and an increase in evasive or avoidance behaviour as opposed to physical altercations. Having a  clear structure to each session and the inclusion of ‘cool down areas’ and strategies to deal with emotional difficulties were essential to this outcome.

Importantly, while competitive sports were a great source of joy and socialisation for children, they also presented challenges to those young people whose trauma has left them in a constant state of arousal. They seemed less able to cope with the complex emotional demands of competitive sports and left them vulnerable to further disturbance and impediment to recovery.

The teachers interviewed perceived that the programme allowed the children to develop a sense of purpose and responsibility, and their physical competence improved as well as self-esteem and confidence. However, further research working directly with the young people is required to support this claim.

Sport plays a prominent role in the work of the UN and other international bodies to bring positive value to children’s lives, especially for the growing number of youths living in refugee camps around the world. The results of my investigation would suggest that such movements from the UN are a fundamental part of responses to displacement. However, the foundation of such interventions must include sufficient evaluation of participants needs and levels, the communities values, and be supported with long and short term aims for participants development. This research demonstrates the possibility of sport to foster positive child development through community centred intervention.