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Plug-IN playgrounds to catalyse quality education in emergency contexts

Co-designing & building innovative and safe play spaces with affected communities to enhance the quality of education in displacement crises

Photo of Riccardo Luca Conti
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What problem does your innovation solve?

Education is considered to be one of the pillars of humanitarian aid, play is not. Nevertheless, play and play spaces have been proven to be effective mechanisms for coping with experiences, feelings and symptoms resulting from crisis situations. The psychological harm caused to children and youth due to displacement is enormous and often traditional educational programs are not enough to effectively address this problem and improve the well-being of children and youth.

Explain your innovation.

‘Plug-IN playgrounds’ aims at creating co-produced play spaces to improve the effectiveness of existing educational programs in emergency contexts. Play and recreation facilitate children’s capacities to negotiate, regain emotional balance, resolve conflicts and make decisions (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). Schools are one of the most important settings of safety for children and youth in emergency situations. Our innovation aims at plugging-IN inclusive play spaces to schools in order to address the existing barriers to education. Play has the capacity to address barriers to education and support children and youth’s psychosocial well-being (UNICEF). Furthermore, play helps to boost youth and children’s ability to interact with their peers and adults. CatalyticAction has implemented the first co-designed & built playground in Lebanon for Syrian refugees, now internationally recognized by academics and development practitioners as a successful approach to create child friendly spaces in emergency contexts. The playground space improved children’s well-being, helping them to cope with their overcrowded, charged social home environments, by releasing stress through play and imagination, expressing their creativity, and learning social skills. The sustainability of this innovation lies in its approach of co-designing and building with the children and youth, enabling them to be active agents in rebuilding communities and in actualizing positive futures.

Who benefits?

Children and youth who will be involved in the co-production of play spaces will develop pride and ownership towards the play spaces. Through play, they will overcome psychological distress. This will reflect directly in an increase of concentration in the classrooms and enthusiasm for going to school. The teachers, mostly Syrian refugees (age 20+), will gain new skills in teaching through play and participate throughout all phases of the project. CA’s current network would allow us to potentially collaborate with over 100 schools and over 6000 children affected by prolonged displacement in the MENA region. Throughout our experience, we have been paying particular attention on how play enables girls to overcome the sense of isolation and hopelessness of being confined to their homes, a sad reality in the context of Lebanon. Success in our pilot project was measured both quantitatively (e.g. increase in attendance rates, students’ grades) and qualitatively (e.g. behavioral changes).

How is your innovation unique?

CatalyticAction’s pilot project, IBTASEM playground, was the first of its kind in the MENA region. Its innovation and uniqueness was due to the fact that the playground was designed and built using an inclusive participatory approach that involved the children and community members. The difference between the play spaces CA implemented and other conventional playgrounds lies in the participatory approach that we adopt, which is divided into three phase: - Participatory planning - Sustainable design - Community-led construction Another innovative aspect of the pilot project was the choice of local materials, which aimed at supporting small local businesses. Other organizations that are providing play spaces in emergency contexts often limit this intervention to simply providing off the shelf play items, therefore neglecting the opportunity to reveal and valorize community knowledge, culture, needs, visions, aspirations and skills.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

In our previous playground projects, we have been testing and researching different Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) tools that would enhance our projects’ monitoring. Nevertheless, we believe that a more appropriate M&E tool that is play based and informed by the current literature or research on play and child development, is needed. What keeps us awake at night is to find the needed expertise to co-produce this powerful tool, through a multidisciplinary lens, which includes but not limited to education, child rights, psychiatry and anthropology specialists.

Tell us more about you.

CatalyticAction is a UK registered charity, whose work aims at alleviating poverty and inequalities by empowering communities through strategic and innovative spatial interventions. Our team is mainly formed by architects, engineers and artists who have experience in the development sector and that at some point in their career they have decided to put their skills and knowledge to work on addressing global crisis.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Prolonged displacement

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

The primary implementation setting will be prolonged displacement caused by the Syrian conflict. This would be the primary setting because CatalyticAction has previous experience working in this emergency both in terms of knowledge of the crisis and of the culture of the people affected. The idea though, could be effective in other prolonged displacement settings or in any other situation where good quality education is not easily accessible by children and youth.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

Due to the experience and the strong local network developed in the past years, Lebanon and in particular areas strongly affected by the Syrian refugee crisis would be our primary implementation setting. Nevertheless, CA has been developing and/or collaborated in community-led play spaces initiative in Jordan, Syria, Greece and France. Scaling up our idea to more countries, would happen by following CA participatory approach and project objectives to ensure sustainability of all interventions.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

We have been working on play spaces in emergency contexts since 2015 and have developed a strong network of local and international partners, whose work also focuses on promoting the Article 31 and 39 of the UNCRC. In particular, we have been collaborating with Right to Play Lebanon, several Lebanese NGOs, local municipalities, ministries, and other relevant stakeholders. Our work has also been recognized and published by different academic institutions such as UCL (UK), AUB (Lebanon).

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

CatalyticAction started working on the importance of play spaces in emergency contexts in 2015 in Lebanon. Since then we have been able to implement 3 playgrounds in the country, reaching out to over 1,500 children. Furthermore, CA playground projects inspired 4 organizations to include play spaces in their existing schools. Our vision is to inform a larger number of organizations about the importance of play spaces in emergencies so that together we could impact a wider number of children!

Innovation Maturity

  • Roll-out/Ready to Scale: I have completed a pilot and am ready or in the process of expanding.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

London, UK.


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Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate McAllister

Hi! Good luck. Hope you guys are all well? Kate Mc x

Photo of Riccardo Luca Conti

Hi Kate! Nice to hear from you. Warm wishes from all of us :) Hope to see you soon!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Riccardo, great to have you in the Challenge! Just wanted to remind you of the deadline in case you wanted to submit to the Challenge. The Ideas Phase closes June 25 at 11:30PM PST. Make sure your idea is published so others can see it! Only published ideas are eligible.