Interview with Philippe Valls
clinician psychologist and co-founder of Enfants Réfugiés du Monde (ERM)

Play and children in difficulty

You have a great experience in helping refugee children through play. But may playing games not be “futile” in situations of great distress?

Play is absolutely essential to children; it is inseparable from their quality of life. By playing, the child develops on the physical, cognitive, affective, social, and cultural levels.

Play is an active process that reduces the tensions created by frustration.

For children who know or have known war and misery, play is the safest way to fight actively against the most desperate situations. Playing games removes the fear that blocks the child’s development. It allows the child to invent another life that is more acceptable than the painful reality, for today and tomorrow.

Bettelheim said that “the most important thing in playing a game is the immediate pleasure that children derive from it and which is prolonged in their enjoyment of life.” What do you think of that?

As Winnicot stresses, each episode of an ordinary game contains a form of therapy. In playing a game, the child’s internal tensions are lessened, the impact of external stimulation is weakened, and the pathological effects of trauma are attenuated. For the child, to “play” is to open a “virtual space”, somewhere between external reality and internal psychic reality, which gives them an opportunity to develop safely a personal strategy for overcoming the difficulties of the past and the present.

Have you ever seen again children who were formerly in a situation of distress and followed programs based on play? What memories do they have of this experience?

Yes, I have seen several. In Guatemala in the 1980’s, children lived through a war that targeted their community, their nation, their culture, they were even exiled… Many of them played in kindergartens and day centers set up by ERM. 15 or 20 years later, they remember. Their stories reveal an enormous fear which contains and exceeds all a child’s fears and is an indelible trauma from which they still suffer.

“What did I feel then? I was terrified and I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. I don’t know how we regained confidence. We simply started to play with toys at the centre. This made us happy and we didn’t want to go home. For me, it is a happy memory of my childhood, the only one!”

“The first time I went to the centre, I was afraid. Afraid to pick up a toy, afraid to look at the group leader, afraid of the other children. My body was hard, so hard it was painful. The group leader came over to me with a big smile on his face, he spoke to me softly and told me I could play as I wanted. It took me a long time to understand… Then, little by little, my body became less hard, less painful and, as I started to play, the fear was gone. It was the first time that I wasn’t afraid.” “Playing takes the fear away. Getting rid of the fear is the only thing we can do to keep on living. What I lived through, I will never forget, it cannot be erased. But now, I can talk about it, and when the fear comes back, I know how to listen to it so that it will go away”.

You wrote « La malle des jeux internationale » with Nicole Dagnino, do you think play is universal?

Whenever and wherever they can, all the children of the world play, even in very extreme or precarious circumstances. You just have to observe a child to understand that play is a spontaneous and essential activity. In fact, it is so central that one might say that it is his or her raison d’être.

Play can therefore be considered a right that is indispensable to the child (it is included in the International Convention of the Rights of the Child) and, as such, it cannot be denied, altered or negotiated. Moreover, it is the duty of adults to allow children to play, particularly when their opportunities to play are restricted.