Wednesday, July 2, 2014

FEATURE | Playtime for Tacloban

By EPI FABONAN III. Tacloban, Philippines – It was a sweltering Friday morning at Sagkahan Elementary School. Despite the heat, schoolchildren and their parents sat under a large UNICEF tent, eagerly awaiting our arrival. It's June 6 and I am the sole correspondent from The Philippine STAR to witness Johnson & Johnson Philippines' launch of a new playground, in line with the company’s active play advocacy dubbed Di Lang Laro ang Laro.

The road to Sagkahan is paved with tears and desolation. At the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport, the signs of a nightmare gone by are still visible: collapsed ceilings, peeled-off roofing, and damaged luggage conveyor belts. On the side of the road lie coconut trees missing their leaves, homes missing their walls and roofs, and families missing their homes. These families still live in tent cities close to the shoreline of Cancabato Bay despite visible warning signs prohibiting them.

It’s been seven months since Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, the most powerful typhoon to ever make landfall, devastated this city of over 150,000 which left more than 6,000 dead and resulted in a multi-national relief effort costing around $15 billion. One is left to wonder where the money is now.

The city appears much better than it looked in November last year amid all the debris, homelessness, hunger, and looting. Merchants and shoppers make the streets throb with activity. Public transportation now plies major thoroughfares that seemed abandoned in the aftermath of the disaster. However, there are internal wounds that continue to bleed in a city trying to stand on its feet.

Healing through Active Play
These internal wounds are what Johnson’s Baby Philippines and its partners aim to heal by building a new playground and promoting active play among children.

“There are plenty of benefits children can get from playing especially in terms of physical, mental, emotional, and social skills. But what is important now is for the children of Tacloban to overcome their trauma given what happened seven months ago. We believe that active play heals and so we are giving them a place where they can safely play so they can be kids again and get back their normal lives,” says Kris Llanes, senior brand manager for Johnson’s Baby Philippines.

The playground consists of a sturdy tree house with a rope swing underneath, a swing set made of rubber, rope, and steel that can carry three children, a concrete slide, steel monkey bars, an obstacle course of rubber tires, a rope ladder obstacle course, and a mini-water slide made of PVC tubes and plastic drums. The soil around each set is covered with sand and rice husks (ipa in Filipino) making it safer for the kids to land on their feet.

“When we first came here two months ago, we asked the children to draw what kind of playground they want. What surprised us in one of the drawings is a tree house within the playground. We realized that it represented these children’s houses, most of which were destroyed by the typhoon. Hence, the tree house in the playground we built,” Llanes explained.

Other drawings also featured a playground while raining, as well as figures like Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and superheroes. According to Llanes, a child psychologist interpreted the drawings as signs of lingering trauma among the children, especially regarding water, since much of the city was destroyed by storm surge, as well as the lack of authority figures following the widespread chaos, panic, and looting in the aftermath of the storm.

To allay these fears, Johnson’s Baby Philippines filled the playground’s tree house with 1,600 toys collected from various donors which they distributed during the launch. The mini-water slide was also filled with water allowing children to play with plastic boats and inflatable toys provided.

Designed, built with kids in mind
For the construction of the playground, Johnson & Johnson teamed up with Play Pilipinas, a non-government organization advocating for more participation, provision, and protection of children’s right to play at home, in schools, and in communities throughout the Philippines. It aims to construct a playground in each barangay, and since 2011, has built 15 playgrounds in different parts of the country.

“Each playground we build is unique since each community’s needs, as well as the availability of materials, are considered prior to construction,” says Sigrid Perez, executive director of Play Pilipinas. “For this playground, we conducted interviews with the principal, students, and parents, hired local workers for the construction, and made use of locally available, low-cost materials. In this way, the community has a sense of involvement in the construction of the playground, becoming part of the healing process.”

In the design of the playground, Play Pilipinas also considered safety concerns, which they addressed in consultation with Playground Ideas. The Australia-based group adapted Australian safety standards in designing each set and provided training for the project foreman and workers in building the playground according to the safety standards.

“We made sure to minimize the risk of serious injury in building our playgrounds. But definitely, there will always be an element of risk. Active play builds confidence among children that they can play even with the risk of injury; otherwise, everything will have to be foamed,” Perez added.

But more than physical provisions for active play, Play Pilipinas also address the importance of mental and emotional provisions. Often, it is adults that allow or disallow children to play either because of fear for their children’s safety or because children had to help with their parents’ livelihood. To address this issue, the organization also conducted workshops designed to immerse adults in play deprivation, making them understand better what it feels for children to be deprived of playtime.

On the path to recovery
Mrs. Niceta Galura, principal of Sagkahan Elementary School, couldn’t be more thankful for the project. Her school, which is located some 200 meters from Cancabato Bay, was totally washed by storm surge and destroyed 42 of its 45 instructional rooms, including blackboards, chairs, computers, furniture, and learning materials. After the typhoon, looters and individuals mentally impaired by the typhoon roamed the school grounds, adding to the children’s trauma. In front of guests from the media, the local government, and parents, she thanked Johnson & Johnson, Play Pilipinas and the Department of Education for their playground endeavor.

“During enrolment, di umabot ng 80 percent ang enrollees. But on June 2, first day of classes, almost 100 percent ang attendance namin because of our new playground!” Galura said. “Siguro kahit walang bagyo, still, very helpful ang playground because play is also one avenue for learning, aside from the four walls of the classroom.”

But it’s the children of Tacloban who are happiest with their new playing field. After Llanes, Perez, and Galura, together with Dr. Luisa Yu, DepEd regional director for Eastern Visayas , cut the ceremonial ribbon, the children quickly trooped to the playground, eager to try on the different sets for themselves. They laughed, smiled, and cheered, as they traversed monkey bars, hopped on rubber tires, and pushed each other in the swings, as the backdrop of wanton destruction and reconstruction around them seemingly disappeared.

“We at Johnson & Johnson’s Philippines have always believed we are responsible for the communities that we live in. This can be seen in the products, services, and programs we offer to families all over the Philippines. They all stand for one purpose: to build a brighter future for the Filipino family,” Llanes said. “As a health company, it is only fitting for us to fulfill our mission to make the lives of families better. Through our advocacy, Di Lang Laro ang Laro, we are helping create brighter future among these young lives through the promotion of active play and by being a playtime partner.”

With Johnson & Johnson’s first-of-its-kind playground in Tacloban, children now have a venue where they can forget the horrible memories of Typhoon Yolanda, enjoy life anew, and develop their full potential, much like their city as it slowly stands on its feet again.

To learn more about Johnson's Baby and its advocacy Di Lang Laro ang Laro, visit their Facebook page.

Photos of my visit to Tacloban:

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