As the Magic Play Box Guy, I am often telling adults to remember their childhood play memories and to dig into their play history to support the discussion on the importance of play. Dr Stuart Brown1 mentions play history and writes, ‘I say “back” into your life because almost all of us were full-on players when we were little.” But some people’s play history and children around the world today involve play in times of crisis, these times even further elevate the importance of independent play, before, during and after traumatic events.

In the mid-1990s I started researching my family history, from which I learnt about my Great-Grandmother Philippine Gurau.  She died in 1942 a month before her 85th birthday in Terezin Concentration Camp (Ghetto) in the Czech Republic. Terezin was significant as it was visited by the Red Cross. The Nazis erected fake shops and cafes, let people play instruments and do art, play, etc to give the impression they were treating the Jewish detainees well. From the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust the United Nations (UN) was formed with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN in December 1948. It took another 40 years (November 1989) for the UN to adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) with Article 31 including the right to play.

Sport NZ’s ‘Access to Play for Tamariki During and Beyond a Crisis (Phase 1)’ report states, Play is fundamental to the development of tamariki (children) and helps them to make sense of the world around them. In reference to children in Nazi concentration camps, Dr Peter Gray2 writes, ‘Play is children’s means of making sense of their environment and adapting to it, as best they can, regardless of the type of environment.’ George Eisen3 mentions that parents in the concentration camps used play to divert their children’s and their own attention away from the reality of the horrific situation they were in. Despite the adult’s efforts, the children played games that confronted, and not distracted them from, the horrors they lived with. Gray2 also states, “In play children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality, the opposite is true.”

In more recent times, reporting on conflicts in the Middle East have increasingly involved pictures and stories about children, none more so than the Syrian civil war of the last 12 years. There have been photo studies of the effects of the conflict on the children of Syria which include photos of children playing in war-torn towns or cities. There was one photograph from Yazan Homsy of Reuters of children playing in front of ruined buildings in the city of Homs which was used in media across the world. This photo can be seen in an article by Martin Chulov and Mona Mahmood4 in The Guardian. Other photos show children playing in the rubble of buildings with sticks as guns re-enacting building to building fighting. Whether trying to make sense of their world or making the most of a lull in a conflict the deep-seated need to play is undeniable even in a warzone. Adel Assal and Edwin Farrell5 in their article about children and youth in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) recorded this statement from a 10-year-old Lebanese girl, “We got a small blackboard, and we were drawing, and we had so much fun running and chasing each other. I was trying to play so much. I told my mother later I was playing as much as I could because I had a feeling that if something happened and the fighting and shelling came back, I may die, and I will never get another chance to play.”

Refugee camps which accommodate those that flee from these conflicts have Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs). Ana Ardelean6 states, “Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs) is the main internationally recognised humanitarian aid initiative for children, and it is typically the only place where safe play opportunities can be accessed in refugee camps.” She then goes on to say that mostly the play is ‘structured and adult led’ with little concern to independent play provision. The article also sets out that international policy and play standards in humanitarian emergencies are a real need. This article indicates the importance of independent/free choice play in supporting refugee children to cope, adapt and make sense of their on-going situations. The International Play Association (IPA)7 state, “In situations of conflict or disaster, opportunities for play have a significant therapeutic and rehabilitative role in helping children recover a sense of normality and joy after their experience of loss, dislocation and trauma.”

We can also see play in the immediate after-math of natural disasters. After the Ōtautahi Christchurch earthquake February 2011 we saw news articles about Rangitahi (youth, teens to mid-twenties) skateboarding the broken streets. Two stories appeared on the & 9 website with one skater stating, “A lot of the awesome skate spots in the city have gone, but it’s exciting because every street in Christchurch is potentially skateable now.” By the time the articles appeared early April over half of the videoed roads skated had been fixed. These stories did not surprise me, because in 2010 I observed and talked several times to a large group of skateboarders (aged around 10 to 13 years old) that were regularly on a skatepark next to where I was training on the North Shore of Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland. Without any adults in sight, these kids showed persistence, developed resilience and adaptability, described how they would search for new ‘terrain’, managed risk at the same time pushing their and others’ boundaries.

Early 2023, cyclone Gabrielle caused chaos and devastation over many parts of Aotearoa New Zealand, none more so than the Hawke’s Bay region. There were stories in the media immediately after the disaster covering locals starting the clean-up to families returning to their home’s days later. Reading or listening to these stories there were several mentioning children playing. On the website was a story about Wairoa. The story included talking to a local, Kiwa Hammond, about the cyclone and the clean up around the Takitimu Marae. He said, “It’s important for us to be here,” as he gripped a spade, and children ran around playing in the mud. I heard an interview with a family a few days after they were rescued from their roof/ceiling space and during the first time returning to their devastated home. The mother mentions feeling better seeing their young children running around playing and smiling.

A story from Hawke’s Bay Today11 about Bledisloe School’s recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle has the principal saying, “Another avenue we are exploring is the use of our ‘magic play boxes’ alongside a play therapist to give students support to ‘unpack’ their emotions through play.” Though the article from TVNZ’s Seven Sharp12 which interviews the students has the reporter, near the end, saying “… here on the East Coast you get the feeling that it is in fact the kids are teaching us adults …”

The above horrific and devastating situations have shown us that adult’s underestimate children’s ability, through play, to confront, make sense of, cope with, recover and return to normality from some horrendous circumstances. Independent play with very little, or better still, no adult involvement is the best way to prepare children for life’s everyday challenges let alone bigger crises, such as the pandemic. Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt13 write about USA society attempts to eliminate potential harm to children through reducing independent, risky, and outdoor play without the thought of the effects on the overall development and wellbeing of children. They go on to mention if this is reversed and they see children back outside playing independently again, ‘Common setbacks will be considered “resilience moments” rather than traumas.’ They also go on to say, “The more adults step back, the more we believe kids will step up, growing brave in the face of risk and just plain happy in their independence.”

Prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child.

By: Greg Gurau, Magic Play Box Guy.




Non-Linked References:

  1. Brown, S. (2010). Play; how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul, Scribe, Melbourne.
  2. Gray, P. (2015). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, Basic Books, New York.
  3. Eisen, G. (1990). Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows, University of Massachusetts Press.
  4. Chulov, M., & Mahmood, M. (2013, July 22). Syrian Sunnis fear Assad regime wants to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Alawite heartland. The Guardian.
  5. Assal, A., & Farrell, E. (1992). Attempts to make meaning of terror: Family, play and school in time of civil war. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 23, p.
  6. Ardelean, A. (2021). Play in a refugee camp: disorder from chaos, International Journal of Play, 10:4, 355-360, DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2021.2005395
  7. (2017). Access to Play for Children in Situations of Crisis: Toolkit. IPA-A4-ACCESS-TO-PLAY-IN-SITUATIONS-OF-CRISIS-TOOLKIT-LR.pdf (
  8. Gates, C. (2011, April 08). Skating the ‘mean’ streets. The Press. Skating the ‘mean’ streets –
  9. (2011, April 08). Skaters leap Christchurch earthquake cracks.
  10. Dennett, K. (2023, February 17). Cyclone Gabrielle: Inside Wairoa, the town cut off by the storm.
  11. Vowden, B. (2023, March 03). Cyclone Gabrielle: Bledisloe School in Seven Sharp limelight. Hawke’s Bay Today,
  12. Seven Sharp. (2023, February 28). What do the kids think?
  13. Skenazy, L., & Haidt, J. (2017, December). The Fragile Generation.