This article was originally published in the World Orphans Spring Insight Magazine 2018.

Play must become as high a priority for traumatized children as learning social skills, receiving immunizations, and psychological treatment. Play is one of the best ways for children to learn social skills because children learn best when having fun. Psychological treatment is designed to help the child regain a sense of self and the positive components of childlike play do the same.
— Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

Children who have experienced trauma are forced to grow up early. Childhood naivety and playful wonder are replaced by the need to simply survive and cope with daily life. Children—who most need to be cared for and protected—are suddenly protecting and taking care of themselves. Thus, a child loses his or her ability to think and act like a child in the face of trauma, “any experience that overrides the individual’s ability to cope with the situation.“ (Dave Ziegler, PH.D).

Following traumatic experiences, childlike play does not come naturally to children; in fact, play violates the natural priority of the child’s brain. Without intervention, trauma does not improve with time; on the contrary, it often heightens symptomatically. These symptoms may include social withdrawal, resistance towards others, false guilt, depression, fear, and uncertainty.  

The social requirements of healthy living and playful interaction become more complex and difficult as the child matures. Traumatized children are ill-equipped to navigate this complexity successfully without engagement and support along the way. When children lose their ability to engage in childlike play, opportunities for healthy development turn into vulnerabilities. If the child’s brain misses the opportunity to develop essential components of imaginative enjoyment and stress reduction, the brain becomes vulnerable to high levels of traumatic stress that results in the loss of enjoyment and positive social contact. Studies show that without someone who is a reliable source of attention, affection, and mental stimulation, the wiring of the brain goes awry. At the very least, this results in emotional problems. Sadly, many of those who are caring for traumatized children are functioning traumatized adults who are repeating the same patterns. 

Joyful engagement in play fosters attachment, belonging, and emotional bonding. One of the ways that World Orphans empowers the church to care for families and children is through family empowerment training. Children with the greatest needs are made up of those who are currently facing the hardships of poverty, neglect, abandonment, and abuse. Family empowerment training is designed to promote attachment, bonding, and trust between family members. 

World Orphans had the opportunity to execute this training in both Haiti and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, our pastors and program coordinators gathered together in a conference room for the wholistic care training. We reviewed clinical material, unpacked program requirements, and discussed implementation; however, our discussion about playing together was just as important. Ethiopian men and women and US World Orphans staff separated into small groups, armed with separate decks of UNO cards, and the laughter that ensued was both contagious and important. Playing together transcends the barriers of age, background, and culture, and it positions us towards one another, connecting our eyes and promoting joyful engagement. We laughed hard and took the time to play in an effort to demonstrate what this might look like in the homes of the families we serve. 

Empowerment training encourages the churches we serve and the families within their care with the value of playtime, where families can enjoy meaningful communication and fun-filled connection. Dr. Dave Ziegler says that “play is treatment for trauma in its purest form,” and we have repeatedly seen that be true for both adults and children in our care.