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How to Heal a Community and Resolve International Conflicts: It Starts With a Playground

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Depressed economy? Close the playgrounds. Low test scores? Eliminate recess. Restless kids? Turn on the TV. Whatever the problem, too many school administrators, city officials, and parents seem to think that cutting back on play is the answer.

In doing so, they send the message that play is optional. It's not the meat and potatoes of life; it's more like the cake and ice cream. A luxury, really. Nice to have, but not essential, and certainly not every day!

So why in the world would a Kosovan refugee return to her devastated hometown to build a park, of all things? Saranda Bogujevci was 13 when she lost her mother and two younger brothers in a Serbian paramilitary attack. She herself barely survived and later had 16 bullets removed from her body. With the help of Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MAK), she was relocated to the UK, where, she says, her recovery was aided by the peace and beauty of its public green spaces.

Years later, on a return visit to Podujeva, she and other refugee children had the idea of building a park there, believing it could help heal the lingering aftereffects of the traumas suffered in their hometown. The park even includes a Wild Zone, a new form of public space dedicated to unstructured free play in nature.

2010-09-22-WildZone1.jpg 2010-09-22-WildZone2.jpg

Saranda is not the only one who believes that outdoor play can heal wounds and bridge divides. In the Indian state of Gujarat, tensions still linger after deadly riots erupted between Hindus and Muslims in 2002. Last year, a resident named M. Hasan Jowher decided that enough was enough. Seeking to bring harmony to the troubled region, he embarked on a plan to build an adventure park in a particularly notorious conflict zone between two religiously divided neighborhoods. Hindu and Muslim neighbors worked side by side to build the park, using tires, metal scraps, and other recycled materials.

In Afghanistan, the Maine Army National Guard is partnering with locals and the nonprofit International Childhood Enrichment Program (ICEP) to build a playground near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Capt. Paul Bosse and Afghan Project Manager Javed Ahmad agree that a playground would provide kids with "a break from all the bad things going on around them." Paul Carpenter, founder of ICEP, predicted that the kids would "wear the paint off in a few weeks."

These initiatives all beg the question: If play is such a luxury, why do people in conflict zones believe in its power? (People in disaster zones believe in it too. See my earlier post, Lessons from the Gulf.)

Whether in Afghanistan or Mississippi, kids intuitively understand the importance of play. Take 13-year-old Jonathan Lee, who recently captured media attention by traveling to North Korea to propose a children's peace forest in the country's demilitarized zone. "The children of these countries have never been able to meet or interact with each other and that made me sad," he told CNN.

Greg Mortenson, who has won international acclaim for building schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, didn't initially include playgrounds in his blueprints. As he relates in his new book Stones into Schools, it was his daughter, Alima, who one evening asked: "Hey, Dad... what kinds of games do the children in your Kashmir schools play?" When he responded that he had no idea, she pressed, "Dad, you don't have any playgrounds at all in your schools, do you?" He admitted that playgrounds had not exactly been a priority, and his daughter insisted: "You really need to put them in... All children need to play, especially ones that are suffering and hurting like the kids in Pakistan." Fortunately, Mortenson listened to his daughter, a bit mortified that the idea hadn't occurred to him before.

The fact is, children will find ways to play, no matter where they are or under what circumstances they live (see these photos of kids playing on tanks and anti-aircraft guns). We aren't just failing our children when we don't bother to invest in safe outdoor playspaces; we're also failing our communities. We're missing opportunities to bridge divides, whether it's between estranged neighbors in a diverse U.S. city, or between Hindus and Muslims in India. We're missing opportunities to heal.

People like Saranda and Alima get it. Unfortunately, many of our country's decision-makers don't.

Photos of Manchester Peace Park courtesy of pechbely.