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Play in a box: A low-cost modular playground for refugee camps.

Use play as a means to help children and their families bridge conflicts, build friendships and cope with the trauma of displacement.

Photo of Chloe Varelidi
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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional insights gathered from Beneficiary Feedback in this field

We shared the user experience map with the Shisto Refugee Camp & the Develop Athens refugee community through a co-design session with the teachers and a user testing session with the parents and children. We learned that in order to build trust we should start by engaging parents with PLAY IN A BOX versus the educators which is what we had initially designed for. Full map+insights:

Why does the target community define this problem as urgent and/or a priority? How is the idea leveraging and empowering community assets to help create an environment for success? (1000 characters)

As we talked to refugees, administrators, NGOs and educators inside the greek camps we heard the same story: Thousands of children are trying to stay resilient, bereft of their homes, their safety and their own childhood. Their need for joy, friendship and play is urgent and paramount to their emotional, physical and cognitive health. But camp life for refugee children means that, while they have already experienced serious traumas, they still remain in a condition of tension, conflict and violence, in a world of angry, traumatized and scared adults. Children are in the middle of these tensions, negotiations and everyday struggle. Even though all the stakeholders involved agree: everyone wants to build bridges in the camp community- they lack the tools to do so. PLAY IN A BOX is a tool for building social relationships, targeted to children and their caretakers, while empowering the community to shape the camp environment literally and metaphorically as one of peace and friendship.

How does the idea fit within the larger ecosystem that surrounds it? Urgent needs are usually a symptom of a larger issue that rests within multiple interrelated symptoms - share what you know about the context surrounding the problem you are aiming to solve. (500 characters)

What we learned from working in Shisto is that the main focus in a camp is survival and perseverance, and as a result the space is not designed with community building in mind, but with survivorship. Designed with the best intentions, this liminal spaces of survival might amplify tensions, mental stress and uncertainty specifically for children. Information is targeted to adults in the form of commands and rules. This continued sense of threat perpetuates the memories of war, fear and chaos.

How does the idea affect or change the fundamental nature of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it (as described above) in a new and/or far-reaching way? (500 characters)

In contrast to the liminal space of a camp and the systematic issues that cause tensions, as described above, PLAY IN A BOX with its modular components aims to empower young children to create their own space of self expression and co-existence. Moreover PLAY IN A BOX really integrates the community, the families and camp stakeholders in building together spaces of trust; inclusive magic circles of play and friendship.

What will be different within the target community as a result of implementing the idea? What is the scope and scale of that difference? How long will it take to see that difference and how will it be sustained beyond BridgeBuilder support? (500 characters)

The goal is to see real impact within a year of the program through: 1) the strengthening of community relationships in the camp between families, admins, educators. 2) play being used successfully to promote mental health, alleviate tension and create opportunities of empathy between refugee children of different backgrounds and local children Beyond BridgeBuilder support we are working on a sustainable business model that we hope can help us scale to camps worldwide (see attached)

How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

During this phase we tested with the refugee community in Greece the following assumptions. Onboarding: Children need help and guidance to start constructing the playground. Design: Children respond better to puzzle pieces that are brightly colored or feature a character. Community: Parents might be hesitant to participate. We learned that: Onboarding is important for creating games, not the structure. As a result we prototyped a "play-journal" with one of the camp teachers. Children really enjoy colors and characters like animals. It was fun watching the children trying to recreate an animal with the kit. Parents are REALLY eager to participate. This completely changed our user experience map in fact. We realized that by giving a parent the role of "play-leader" children build trust between them and engaged more freely in the activity. In addition this worked as an icebreaker for families of different ethnic and religious backgrounds who connected for the first time.

What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (You can attach a timeline or GANTT chart in place of a written plan, if desired.) (1000 characters)

Attached a visual and the details of our 3 year timeline.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (Feel free to share an organizational chart or visual description of your team). (500 characters)

We have a core team that consists of experts in play, design, research and content development, the refugee community in our camp partners (Shisto and Mytilini), and a manufacturing partner that will produce the first round of product. In addition we have a team of advisors from large organizations like IRC & Unicef who we can pull in to help and a list of local partner organizations like DNC and the Melissa Network. Please refer to the visual for how our team is structured as well as short bios

What aspects of the idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (500 characters)

1) Multiple prototypes with more durable and eco friendly materials. We have identified a manufacturing partner and are ready to start this process. 2) A first round of 100 boxes incl. training to be piloted in 2 camps in Greece: Shisto & Mytilini. 3) A pilot in collaboration with an NGO program on the ground like DNC and the Melissa Network. 4) Pending on how much funding we get a second round of 1000 boxes to be piloted in more camps in Greece, Lebanon &Tanzania in partnership with IRC

In preparation for our Expert Feedback Phase: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in your project? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea and needs.

1) Community building: even though we envision this solution as a plug & play, we realize there needs to be an embedded community program through a partnership with local orgs that helps foster play as a tool for peace in the camps, either by having refugee parents lead playtime or educators help. We would like further advice on what to avoid and what to design for. 2) Business Development: we are committed to not make this a one off product/project. We do want to sustainably scale this project so it lives beyond one off funding and becomes part of what every NGO sends to a refugee camp within the first 48 hours of a crisis. We have been tinkering with various ideas on how to do that and would love further feedback. 3) Resources/Challenges: Are we missing some important resource? What do you think will be the largest challenge or struggle with making this project actually happen. Is there an opportunity for tapping to an existing resource that we don't know off?

Final Updates (*Please do not complete until we reach the Improve Phase*): How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

The user testing told us we need to design an experience that starts with the parents in the camp. This was a complete 180 from where we had started- with an experience that started with the educator or the counselor. We not only noticed a much higher buy-in from the community but also it literally was a way for the different communities in Shisto (afghan & syrian families, educators, councelors etc) to come together and bond through play. We also learned that fostering a relationship with the educator is especially important as it keeps the kids attending school- a big challenge currently in camps nationwide, which is a huge indicator for the prosperity of refugee children. Two points that stood out: 1) how much we should focus on advocacy; even though play IS a human right, the international development space doesn't always see it as a priority. 2) how to leverage more clearly in the user experience map the existing systems like NGOs so we don't have to do everything ourselves.

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

This has been a really helpful process for us so thanks to everyone for their feedback- it's especially encouraging and inspiring to be part of this community and no matter what we hope we can make this project a reality in the future and collaborate with teams we met here. Here are four things that the experts, community leaders and the amazing community here at OpenIdeo suggested we highlight as we wrap up this process: A) IMPACT: With the funds we are seeking more than 10,000 refugee children and their families will get access to play as a means for bridging bridges, forming friendships and coping with the trauma of displacement and conflict. B) PARTNERSHIPS: A big part of our idea is to embed PLAY IN A BOX within existing systems and community programs. We plan to do that by partnering with UN agencies and NGOs on the ground in a few ways: 1) Through customizing large orders for the box to serve each organizations goals, for example an IRC box could be about Social Emotional Learning and so on. 2) Through supporting local programs and integrating in those versus running everything ourselves. 3) Through working with their existing distribution channels; our hope is that PLAY IN A BOX becomes a new "standard" and is shipped to camps within the first 48 hours of a crisis, in the same way necessities as tents and first response kits are. C) MATERIALS: We have used this time to prototype materials and have identified a manufacturing partner that will create a custom eco friendly material for us that is both durable and light- a challenging set of specs. Attached an image that show how the new materials work. D) VALUE PROP: We wanted to finally highlight the Value Proposition for this project. How is this the best solution for refugee camps and what does PLAY IN A BOX do differently that existing solutions do not address? 1) LOW COST: Traditional playgrounds cost an average of 25K and serve about 25 kids at a time. Even if recyclable materials are used like with the very inspiring project Play for Peace, the costs for supervising the construction and sourcing and repurposing materials is still high. With more alternative solutions like the beautiful Imagination Playground, also a modular playground; the costs (~10K) is also really high to be even realistic for a refugee community. PLAY IN A BOX will cost 50$ and will serve 10 kids at a time. That means that for the same money you would spend on a traditional playground you could serve 4000 kids. 2) CREATIVE: Unlike traditional playgrounds that are rigid structures kids have to play around and not with, PLAY IN A BOX is modular; kids can literally make anything out of it and with the game activities they are empowered to invent their own play and literally transform the space to be theirs. In addition because the product so modular and creative it becomes also cultural and gender agnostic allowing for various interpretations for different populations, so the community can make it really theirs. 3) DURABLE, EASY TO PACK, MOVE & STORE: this is a constant problem for refugee communities- things getting lost, being bulky, hard to pack and store. PLAY IN A BOX takes literally 3 minutes to pack and unpack and is stored in a flat box. Moreover it's light materials make it easy to carry and durable in tough weather circumstances. 4) MADE WITH REFUGEES FOR REFUGEES. Many play solutions are made for someone else and then repurposed for the refugee community. It's quite common for Greeks for example to donate toys, books and board games to organizations that work with refugee kids. But as the parents told us (and the kids themselves) sometimes these products, books and games are just not really relevant to them; culturally, aesthetically or content-wise. Our idea literally came out of our work with the refugee community- and when it is completed it will be theirs to play with however they like. 5) A BRIDGE FOR PEACE AND PROSPERITY: we have elaborated on this point throughout our proposal but in a sentence: play is a tested method for getting communities in conflict to come together and build friendships that will help this community persevere in this enormous adversity they are facing. To conclude here is an expert from Bernie Dekovens legendary Playful Path book "Kids play because they have to. It’s how they learn the world, how they grow, how they cope. For kids, play is life. " We hope you will help us bring life to this community that has gone through so much and deserves so much more.

Note that you may also edit any of your previous answers within the proposal. Here is a great place to note any big final changes or iterations you have made to your proposal below:

The largest change is that we are now using eco-friendly materials so our idea covers all three sectors; peace, prosperity and planet.

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

We have worked with the refugee community in Greece and have heard again and again how camps can often be spaces of tension between different religious and ethnic groups, with children often caught in the middle and been left disconnected from their peers and family. When visiting camps we observed that no matter the differences of their guardians kids would always find a way to connect with each other through play. And parents would often join in too. But only few of the camps have spaces for kids to play. Play is so important to children’s development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (1989) recognizes it as a basic human right of every child. We have spoken to a dozen NGOs who are working with refugees including the International Rescue Committee, Unicef and the Danish Refugee Council and they all agree. EVERYONE agrees that having play spaces in refugee camps would have a HUGE impact when it comes to building bridges between communities, coping with trauma and even developing 21st skills. There is one problem; playgrounds are really expensive. The average cost of a playground is 25K. And a typical playground can only serve up to 25-30 kids at a time. Pending on their size refugee camps average 100-400 kids. And it’s not only the money. Here’s what we have heard from tens of camp administrators in Greece: +Playgrounds often end up vandalized making it an unworthy investment. +When traditional playgrounds exists they can be dangerous, because most play is unsupervised. +Children engage in conflict as to who will use the space and equipment. Play in a box is a low cost and modular playground that kids can assemble anywhere and use to create their own games together with their peers and family. It's made from eco friendly materials that are durable and light weight. Each box serves up to 10 kids and costs as low as 50$. That means that for the same money you would spend on a traditional playground you could serve 4000kids

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Children ages 4+ and their guardians who have been displaced starting in Shisto, Athens and Mytilini, Greece. The product could be places in other refugee communities around the world. We have been in contact with communities in Lebanon and Tanzania. They will benefit by 1) Building stronger relationships with their peers and guardians by playing together (which has been our approach so far in all the test sessions we have run with great success) 2) Gaining engineering skills to construct the playground pieces and design their own games 3) Mitigating conflict and building friendships with other populations in the camp or outside the camp with local populations with whom there might be tensions with.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Play in a box came as a response to a direct need we heard again and again in the refugee community. From the start we talked to camp administrators, educators, refugee parents and kids to gain insights and co-design our first prototype. As we looked for existing solutions i.e. making a kit out of simple balls, hoola hoops and used toys or creating a simple playground with reused materials we kept hitting the same challenge: everything was REALLY expensive and most importantly hard to scale to something that can be send to a camp in the same flat box a tent or first aid kit is sent. Moreover what does our solution does differently? in the words of Homza one of the refugee mothers we user tested our prototype with "I like that with PLAY IN THE BOX my kids don't just play, they use their brain too to make their own games" and in the words of Benjamin one of the refugee children we tested with "When we play we are all friends, wherever we come from."

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

humans who play is a design company passionate about using play as a force for innovation and doing good. We have worked with organizations like the IRC, The World Bank, Girls Who Code and have launched products with Mozilla, littleBits and Stop, Breathe & Think. We believe that play is in our DNA; it’s how we understand the world around us, tinker with new ideas and form meaningful relationships.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered company.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

I was catching up with a friend (Maria, now a team member) who we used to run a street games festival together and who was now very involved in the refugee work happening in Greece. She was talking about the difficulties in the camps, how there are so many children and no play opportunities as well as the tensions between groups. We talked about how well the street game festival had worked to bring people together in a quick easy way. What if we could do something similar in the refugee camps?

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Peace is influenced by religious and geopolitical tensions inside the refugee camps as well as within the urban communities that refugees in Athens are currently relocating. Prosperity has been impacted by war and the need to relocate from ones home as well as the lack of forward thinking education. For example there is a lack of creative or STEM focused education for refugee camps in Greece, as the educators who run these programs in the Municipality of Athens have told us. Most of the education focuses on learning english following very traditional learning models that leave kids disengaged. Finally we heard this from refugee kids, especially youth- again and again; they feel disconnected with local kids and families and it is difficult for them to envision a life of prosperity when they feel so secluded from the rest of the society and peers in the co

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We are fortunate to have an Advisory Council with experts from larger organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Unicef who have helped us understand what a user experience would look like as well as the opportunities for designing play activities for guardians and kids to do together. On a local level the Danish Refugee Council as well as the Shisto Camp Educators in Athens have helped us with testing the product with Syrian and Afghan kids and would like to continue with a formal pilot. The Municipality of Athens and the Childrens' Museum in Athens have worked with us to provide feedback and run workshops with Afghan urban refugee families and understand the challenges of inner city conflicts. Finally the Collab Manufacturing Studio in NY has provided support to build our prototype and source the next round of materials. At the core of everything we do is working directly with the communities we serve. Examples here:

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Refugee families in Greece are resilient, compassionate and ready to overcome the barriers that have been placed in front of them to connect with each other and thrive in the society that is now their home. Parents in Shisto are seeking opportunities to do activities with their kids and for them to feel integrated in the camp and the city. Inherently playful, children are the best ambassadors for building bridges through play and creating new opportunities for peace.

Geographic Focus

Our initial pilot will be in Greece; we also have gotten interest from camps in Lebanon.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We have an initial 24 month timeline for 100 kits with the goal to scale to 1000 afterwards: 6 months to finalize/test materials and build 2nd Prototype (we have a manufacturer) 3 months to test and iterate on the 2nd Prototype 6 months to manufacture 100 Play in a Box kits & distribute in the camp (through a partner ngo like DNC or IRC) 6 months to pilot across camps in Greece (with the goal of reaching 1000 kids) 3 months to create a report of findings and plan next round of manufacturing

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

Attachments (1)


Material samples: we are thinking of using an eco-friendly honeycomp structure as a sandwich between two pieces of low cost and water resistant materials such as foam, wood-chips and laminated cardboard.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Patricia

Dear Chloe Varelidi ,

Congratulations on a great project! The power of play is so important for young people affected by conflict. It sounds like your next year will be quite exciting with developing and scaling this project.

Have you seen the "Ideas Box" distributed by Libraries Without Borders ( They have been piloted here in Iraq and a variety of other places to great results! We'd be happy to connect you to them if you're interested in learning more.

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