The power of play

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PlayItForward20140105How play therapy helps children heal from tragedy
NATURAL calamities in the Philippines come one after another every year these days.

In 2013, the country was devastated with both natural disasters and an armed conflict in Zamboanga City. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake shattered Bohol, Cebu and other nearby provinces. The seemingly endless chain of typhoons that began with Auring, devastatingly ended with the worst the world had ever seen, now infamously known as Yolanda, which over 6,000 Filipinos in Central Visayas.

Amid all these unfortunate tragedies, humanity’s compassion, thankfully, always triumphs, helping our countrymen get back on their feet and move forward.

Today’s Sunday Times Magazine cover story looks at the work of one foundation that has chosen to focus on helping the children after one of the Philippines’ unfortunate calamities.

Shortly before Super Typhoon Yolanda’s destruction, Unilab Foundation (UF) launched a very laudable project in Barangay Calaanan, Cagayan de Oro City, which became one of the largest resettlement sites for victims of Typhoon Sendong.


Sendong is another deadly storm, which struck the Southern Philippines in 2011, spawning flash floods that caused Cagayan de Oro River to spill into low-lying areas of the city. The storm left more than 1,000 people dead or missing; 300,000 families homeless; and P2.1 billion worth of property damage. But worst of all, the calamity left 87,500 children orphaned or homeless.

While houses have been built over the last two years, as well as other relief and rebuilding efforts implemented by both government and private sectors, there had been no existing intervention centered in helping children recover from the trauma of losing their homes and families.

One such child is Inday, 10, who saw how her pregnant mother clung to a mango tree at the height of the storm, only to be washed away by the raging flood.

Susan Colades, one of the mothers in the settlement area, related to The Sunday Times Magazine, how children like Inday have been affected by the tragedy. “Every time it rains, they start to run and hide, and then cry.”

Inday is just one among millions of Filipino children who are affected by disasters that hit the country every year. While food, clothing and medicine often pour in from kind and generous hearts, they need more than just life’s basic necessities.

The power of play
The Play it Forward aims to safeguard the inalienable right of every Filipino child to play, and to raise awareness to the fact that play is an essential and indispensable part of human development.

According to Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi, Unilab Foundation executive director and senior vice president for Corporate Affairs, play is essential in achieving a child’s holistic health and development. It is vital to them as food and water.

Fresnedi explained, “Project Play it Forward, Unilab Foundation’s developmental and therapeutic play program, targets children’s holistic development and aims to significantly improve their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being through play.”

This program is designed to enable children, when provided the proper avenue for play, to express themselves well and thus be rid of their fear and pain from losing loved ones.

“Recognizing the importance of play in children’s recovery from post-traumatic stress, our program’s treatment methods apply the therapeutic benefits of play, where trained therapists help children address and resolve their own problems, and learn about themselves and their relations to the world around them,” Fresnedi elaborated.

Health ‘bayanihan’
Unilab Foundation is the corporate foundation of United Laboratories Inc. established with the aim of “building a healthier Philippines” through meaningful and sustainable programs in the area of health.

The foundation believes that the most effective approach to health is holistic, that which touches on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of a person’s health.

“Bayanihan Para sa Kalusugan” is the motto of the foundation. Presently, UL runs projects on developmental and therapeutic play; health in public schools; leadership development for healthcare professionals; senior citizens’ health; and social enterprise.

Top talents
For the Play it Forward project, Unilab Foundation partnered with experts in the fields of Play Therapy, Human Movement Sciences and Architecture. All top talents in their respective professions, they were—and continue to be—fully devoted in the development, implementation and maintenance of the program.

Architect Angelo Mañosa of Mañosa & Co. designed the project’s first therapeutic play space, pro bono. With over two decades of service, his famous father’s company, Francisco Mañosa and Partners, has developed into a firm that strives to meet the diverse design needs of its different clients, as well as communities such as Barangay Calaanan.

Meanwhile, faculty members of the University of the Philippines’ College of Human Kinetics (UP-CHK) serve as advisors for usage and safety. The official service-providing unit of UP for scientific programs on human movement and physical education, UP-CHK is a staunch advocate of the importance of play in human development.

The Bulatao Center for Psychology Services, which is considered the service arm of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Psychology, addresses the psychosocial needs of the program’s children. The group ably lends its expertise in the field of psychology by providing consultancy services in the play curriculum development of Play It Forward. The Bulatao Center also provides the facilitators’ training for free and rules of use for the play space.

To maintain the actual play spaces at the pilot site, Gawad Kalinga is Unilab Foundation’s effective partner. A non-government organization, GK believes in ending poverty with its mission to provide land for the landless, and build homes for the homeless.

Finally, Unilab Foundation is grateful to the city government of Cagayan de Oro for providing the lot for the Play it Forward project.

Oasis of play
The nearly completed play space features crawl tubes, a sandbox, a three-story jungle gym, a music pavilion, and swings made of tires.

Marco Flores, UF director for Operations, explained that more facilities will be added in the play space like an amphitheater, extra rest rooms, and resting areas, among others.

According to Nanay Susan, they are very grateful for the play space that is being built for the children. “Masasaya ang mga bata dito sa playground, parang nalilimutan nila ang kanilang problema. Masaya din kami kasi naririnig namin ang kanilang mga halakhak habang naglalaro. [The children are very happy in this playground, they seem to forget their problems. We are also happy because we can hear their laughter while they play].”

Fresnedi explained that Unilab Foundation will not stop at Barangay Calaanan for the Play it Forward project, but will replicate the program in other areas of the country where they are badly needed as well.

She said, “The program is being developed into a long-term intervention that is replicable and sustainable—so that as we rebuild the homes and the structures in Cagayan de Oro, we are also rebuilding what is broken inside the hearts of each of the children.”

Forward to ‘Yolanda’
Fresnedi told The Sunday Times Magazine that therapeutic play intervention in the rehabilitation and rebuilding of the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda is also vital.

“An essential element in rebuilding our country after Yolanda’s onslaught is ensuring that the children affected by the disaster are able to continue to develop into holistically healthy adults.

“Play is essential to children—it is as vital to them as food and water. For children surviving the aftermath of calamity it becomes even more critical. Almost five million kids have lost their homes, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a school bag, a toy because of Yolanda. But what must never be lost is that space for a child to play,” she insisted.

Fresnedi pointed out that therapeutic play intervention defends “that sacred space where children can be kids again.”

“It is through play that a child understands, that a child makes sense of his surroundings. What horror, grief or trauma after a disaster that children can never express in words, they can do so through play.

“As we invest in the future by rebuilding physical structures, so too must we invest in rebuilding what is broken inside the hearts of our country’s children. The future of our country is determined by how well—our children today,” she stated.

Unilab Foundation is currently assessing the sequence of intervention necessary in addressing the emotional recovery of the children affected by Yolanda.

“The situation needs to be approached delicately and sensitively as it deals with post-traumatic stress of children. If not done properly, it may do more harm than good.

“As with all our programs, we are convening experts who believe in the same health cause, and are willing and ready to play it forward. We are working with doctors and academicians to come up with a systematic approach for the intervention. This ensures that what we bring is a long term-sustainable solution: Therapeutic play with a proven formula of play space plus curriculum.

“As long as there is a child in need of therapeutic play intervention, we continue to play it forward because as we rebuild lives, we continue to build a healthier Philippines, one child at a time,” she concluded.

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