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"Play therapy" in a Phnom Penh Playground

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play.jpg

Volunteers learn skills, while helping children

T

HE road is one of the worst in Phnom Penh, covered in thick red mud and huge lumps

of rock that ricochet out of the crater-like potholes as traffic passes by. Yet right

at the end, lies one of the city's most improbable oases of peace - a specially-devised

playground devoted to supporting children traumatized by armed conflict.

The children here look no different from children anywhere in the world. They play

football, hang from rope swings, and run screaming and laughing around the playground.

Yet according to They Chantou, co-ordinator of the Dutch-funded project, all the

children here, who range in age from two months to 18 years old, bear the marks of

living in communities that have suffered many years of conflict, trauma, and disaster.

"Although most of these children will not have witnessed armed conflict first

hand, all the stress from their parents is passed on to a new generation," he

explained. "The children absorb the atmosphere around them, and it can affect

them deeply."

Allowing children to play freely with no interference is an important part of their

development which is often overlooked by parents in Cambodia, according to Chantou.

"It's very difficult for Cambodian people to allow their children to play freely,"

he noted. "Because of their past experiences they are worried about the future,

they are worried about everything. When they see their children playing, they get

anxious or afraid -they want to protect them."

Chantou noted that even in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cambodia

is a signatory, the importance of play is often overlooked.

"We are trying to make a new generation understand the importance of play,"

he said.

The playground itself, however, is not simply a random collection of games. All the

activities are designed to build self-confidence and self-reliance, and to allow

the children to express their emotions freely. The play areas are staffed purely

by young Cambodian volunteers who have been trained by the project, and the children

themselves come from a wide range of backgrounds.

"We make no discrimination here between rich and poor," says Chantou. "Everyone

in the neighborhood [Psah Depot] is welcome, whatever their ethnic origin or social

status."

As Chantou talks, a small child approaches and tugs his sleeve, then asks him to

help her set up a skipping game. He sends her away gently, and explains,

"We try to make them understand that they can do these things on their own,

that they do not need our permission or help." The girl pouts slightly, but

several minutes later she is happily jumping rope, having gathered a group of friends

to play with her.

"You see," says Chantou proudly, "it's all to help their self confidence."

The playground (whose official name 'Rajanda Buddhi Pabodhana Mandala' means in Pali

'the place for a joyful awakening of wisdom') was conceived and created as a pilot

project two years ago by the mental health NGO Transcultural Psychosocial Organization

(TPO).

With over 100 volunteers spending an average of 8 hours a week each at the center,

and with more than 200 children paying regular visits, TPO has decided to make the

project a purely Cambodian-run association. The official handing-over ceremony took

place early November.

Mark Jantrapman, who has acted as Project Initiator for the last two years, said

he believed the playground would continue to prosper, but admitted that it might

encounter a few teething problems "without the protective umbrella of a foreign

organization behind it."

For now, the organization seems to be running at full steam. Besides the swings,

sand pit, water jars and building blocks, children can play with locally-made jigsaws

and models depicting well-known Cambodian images, draw or paint, try traditional

Cambodian dance, which they learn with students of the School of Fine Art who come

to the playground regularly, or listen to Cambodian traditional instruments, of which

the project has a complete pristine set. There is also a quiet room for relaxation

and meditation.

The volunteers who staff the place are also one of the center's great success stories.

"We were told that young Cambodians would never work for free, but we have proved

this wrong," said Chantou. "They come here to learn skills for themselves,

and to help the children.

Path Sokhunvath, 21, who is learning to type in Khmer on a computer, was full of

praise for the playground.

"I think it brings many benefits for the kids here, and as far as I know, it's

the only place in Cambodia that does work like this." He said he split his time

between looking after the children and perfecting his typing skills, and that he

eventually hoped to find a job working with children.

A quick look at the vibrant playground is enough to show how the children themselves

feel about it. Kung Pros May, 13, described it as a very happy place for him. "I

come here to play every day except Saturday and Sunday," he said.

Por Leng, 10, said his parents were very happy for him to be at the playground. "I

have come here for a long time," he said. "Sometimes I play football, sometimes

I learn traditional songs. I like this place very much."

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