The power of play: how games help unaccompanied children

Displacement caused by war or persecution can have a devastating effect on a child’s development and life in general. The long-lasting negative consequences can affect children’s health, social skills and future.

Displaced unaccompanied children in northern France come from countries torn by conflict, war or other disasters. These children have been, and continue to be, deprived of their right to education and play. Moreover, vulnerable children in Calais continue to experience re-traumatisation from the ongoing evictions, police violence and unsanitary living conditions in the informal settlements they live in. 

With each visit to these makeshift camps our team at RYS seeks to create a safer space for these children and bring a glimpse of normality to their lives through play-based and learning activities. RYS believes that play is fundamental for children’s healthy development, and learning can be achieved through such projects. Particularly now, with the upcoming winter exacerbated by COVID-19 and the tight administrative measures, an hour of cricket or a lesson in French could not only help children cope better with their high levels of stress but it can also provide hope for a path forward.

Multiple studies show the importance of play for refugee children in reducing anxiety levels as well as mitigating the detrimental, long-term effects of the trauma they carry or continue to endure. A clinical report, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, finds that play is an important part of children's growth, assisting in cognition, memory and social skills. In 2019, UNICEF published a report, highlighting the importance of sporting activities for developing children’s creativity, inventiveness and curiosity.  It also finds that sport can build children’s self-esteem, improve physical health and contribute to their overall well-being. For millions of children, however, the chance to learn through sport and play is unavailable in their early development. Many children continue to form their earliest memories from witnessing violence, destruction and incomprehensible discrimination. In addition, with the COVID-19 crisis, the threat to refugee children’s education and development reaches alarming levels. In September 2020, UNHCR published a report warning that without collective and immediate action “we risk a lost generation of refugee children deprived of their education”.

Taking all that into account, RYS tries to organise and tailor activities, which promote learning through play. Our popular sporting matches, such as football and cricket, have proven to bring lone children together and help them form friendships with one another. Sport as a vehicle for inclusion and support is evident in every sporting outreach session that RYS undertakes. In November 2020, RYS enhanced its language activities for French and English and began delivering consistent language lessons to the children in the informal camps. With this activity, RYS is focused on motivating learning, bringing new skills and giving hope to these vulnerable children who are otherwise deprived of their right to childhood play and education.

RYS continues to update its varied programme of activities and study curriculums centered around well-being, social development and inclusion. The goal is to foster feelings of belonging but also knowledge and inspiration. We see that learning and developing through play ignites a spark for knowledge in the midst of the living chaos these children survive in and gives them hope. However, none of these activities can fully substitute for formal education and allowing easier access to such is essential for these children’s healthy growth.

Today, especially with the COVID-19 crisis, we must step up for the most vulnerable and provide playful and learning experiences that they need to build a safer future. 

If you would like to support our play-based and learning activities, you can purchase an item that will help us continue and further develop our action on the ground. Please click here to see the full list of items, which we currently need:

Author: Petya Tsekova


The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Retrieved from:

Getting Into the Game: Understanding the Evidence for Child-Focused Sport for Development. Retrieved from:

UNHCR Report: Coronavirus a Dire Threat to Refugee Education. Retrieved from: