Playground Builders bring joy to the world, one swing at a time
On a sunny day in Herat, western Afghanistan, two girls play on a sturdy-looking swing set: one of them, in white, swings high, legs kicking freely in the air with abandon. The other girl, in black, wears an expression of pure joy as she swings.
To the side lay two sets of crutches: the girls are amputees, a result of landmine accidents. They are the 'lucky' ones, unlike the 50 to 100 Afghans killed by explosives every month.
Others can only imagine how difficult their daily lives might be, but here, they are fully alive, without impediment as they play on the newly-built swing set.
This playground, as well as many others in the region, was realized by the vision of dedicated Canadians working with locals to better the lives of youth in the world's conflict zones.
Playground Builders is a charity based in Whistler, BC. It was founded by former lumber executive Keith Reynolds, who has devoted his time to building safe playing spaces for children in war-torn regions.
The fact that Playground Builders has managed to build 116 playgrounds in six years (74 in Afghanistan, 21 in Iraq, and 20 in the Palestinian territories), despite the countries' reputation as one of the hardest places to do business in the world, is a testament to the effectiveness of his group.
The playground equipment they bring is simple – swings, slides,teeter totters, merry-go- rounds, parallel bars, benches, volley ball nets and soccer goal posts, made of heavy gauge steel. Rudimentary machine shops can reproduce a playground based on a drawing.
But the simple playground idea has helped to heal children's emotional scars and improve the quality of life for hundreds of thousands in conflict zones.
Children without a safe space to play
A seasoned traveler, Reynolds often saw that war was robbing children of the most defining element of childhood – laughter and play.
"No matter which region, I realized it doesn’t matter to a child who is right or who is wrong. We can feed, clothe, shelter and educate these impoverished children, but do they have childhoods?" he questioned, on the beginnings of Playground Builders.
Reynolds, in centre surrounded by Afghan workers building playgrounds
Speaking over the phone the day before his fourth trip to Afghanistan, Reynolds recalled a particular moment in Baghdad that helped push him to take action.
“I was in Iraq in 2003 after Saddam was captured,” Reynolds said.
“I was looking at fighter jets that were being dismantled in Baghdad. There was a 12-year-old boy there...his father was killed in the war, so he was pulled out of school. He was the breadwinner now.
"I took a picture of him and saw that he had old eyes in a small body. I saw that he really, really did not have a childhood.”
Child in Baghdad, Iraq, dismantling fighter jets
Almost one in every two inhabitants of Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories are under the age of 15. And yet, there is a near-complete absence of facilities for children to play. That gaping absence, Reynolds explained, creates problems for kids in need of something to do.
“I've been in West Bank and Gaza and children did not have a safe place to play. So they'd be rock-throwing at tanks or they'd be in a bad place ...and they get killed,” he said.
Palestinian children playing in the rubble
“In Afghanistan, you do not give a child a soccer ball – they could be stepping on a landmine when they play. These children in a conflict zone whose whose parents are brave enough to send their child to school...that child is to go to school, and then come immediately home after,” Reynolds explained.
While no expert in pedagogy, Reynolds understood that there were definite links between happy childhoods and happy adults. What kind of adults could children in war zones hope to become if all they ever knew was fear of danger in their surroundings?
And so, using his own funds, Reynolds paid for the construction of two playgrounds within refugee camps in the West Bank.
Girl on swing, Palestinian territories
The response was overwhelming – not just among the children, but from the community that helped build them. From there, the project just kept expanding, with schools and parents sending in proposals to build a playground for their own children.
An elegant solution
“Playground Builders is one of the most elegant solutions to the root cause problem that I've ever encountered,” explained Reynold's longtime friend and social enterprise consultant Kirby Brown, on his reasons for getting involved with Playground Builders, where he currently serves as vice-president.
“It offers the most simple, on-the-ground solutions to change future behavior. It sounds incredibly simplistic, but it is."
"Children who play together, care for each other, they develop stronger minds and bodies. And they understand the societal rules that comes with unstructured playground play. It doesn't cost much, and it creates a fundamental and lasting change centred around having fun."
School principals in Afghanistan, as well as the Education Minister of Iraq, have noted that children's attendance, as well as grades, improved noticeably after playgrounds were installed.
A broad reaching impact
People who have worked directly with Playground Builders as board members – Kirby Brown, Mike Varrin, Traci Costa, Kelly Hand and Leslie Anthony – are "basically a group of friends," as Hand puts it.
The photographs on the group's Facebook page tell stories of the immense impact that Playground Builders has had on communities.
In one girls-only school in Afghanistan (named “Patricia's playground”, after a Calgary woman who funded the playground in memory of her father), young girls in white crowd around the camera as other girls play on a bright green teeter-totter in the background.
Girls playing at Patricia's Playground
In another photo, a group of youth – including one girl – in wheelchairs and crutches huddle in a circle on a basketball court in the Pir-e Herat Humanism Centre for the Handicapped, a centre for youth disabled by landmines, injury or birth.
Thanks to this basketball court, they can connect with others, build teamwork and experience the joy of playing sports like other able-bodied youth in Afghanistan.
Youth on a basketball court in Herat
Children aren't the only ones who benefit from the playgrounds, either: each new playground brings employment for people involved.
"When a war breaks out, one of the first thing that people lose is jobs," Reynolds explained. Unemployment, estimated at over 30 per cent in Afghanistan and 60 per cent in Gaza, turns people into economic refugees, which hugely destabilizes families.
"If we can give people a job, a job that benefits the country, it's fulfilling something we all want to have: security, stability, dignity and happy children," Reynolds said.
Workers in Iraq, above; Palestine, below.
Through contracts at Playground Builders, workers get paid $8 a day in Afghanistan: it's competitive with the $10 wage that the Taliban pay, for much more beneficial work.
"Lots of people would rather be helping build a playground for their kids," Reynolds noted. He vividly remembers the surprised joy of one Afghan contractor who learned that the playground he was about to build would be located where his daughter was studying.
Breaking new ground for the marginalized
One of the most moving photos comes from Playground #113, showing young children on a slide: these children in Kabul have been sent to live at a children's center because their mothers are in prison.
While some of the mothers are in prison for legitimate crimes, the weak status of women in Afghanistan (ranked the worst country in the world for women last year) means that some mothers have been jailed simply for attempting to run away from their husbands, or for getting along poorly with relatives.
Children in playground #113, the facility for children of mothers in prison.
“This playground #113 in Afghanistan is one that's really hitting home, because these kids have nobody, nothing,” explained Hand.
“They've come out of life with their mom at the prisons to live at this orphanage. It's one very recent playground that we're all very emotionally attached to.”
The situation of these children is especially troubling considering some of the 'crimes' for which some Afghan women can be jailed.
“Some women in Afghanistan are in prison for crimes surrounding 'bad relationships',” said Brown. While noting that he can't speak to all the cases, Brown said that different international aid groups have reported Afghan women being locked up for 'moral crimes' that would merit no jail time in the developed world.
Providing a peaceful future for boys
As bad as the situation is for women and girls, Reynolds and Brown remind people that boys in war zones are vulnerable as well.
“In our western world, we're very focused on girls in Afghanistan. They rightly deserve support, but in doing so, we often overlook the boys and young men," he said.
"And the young boys – you can't change everything overnight, and when they grow up, those boys are going to have a lot more say as to what goes on in Afghanistan. We have to support these boys as well. We need to keep young teenage boys in team sports or something that is not military-related.”
To that end, Playground Builders has sponsored its first cricket team for young men. Cricket is an immensely popular sport in Afghanistan, and cricket players serve as big role models for younger boys.
On the back of their bright green team uniforms, three words are emblazoned across their backs: “Peace Cricket Team”.
The Peace Cricket team
Dr. Inayat, centre, with the Peace Cricket Team. Dr. Inayat works extensively with Playground Builders to coordinate the building of playgrounds in Afghanistan.
It's hard to overstate the positive effect it has had on boys and men who are holding cricket bats rather than guns in their hands. And $6,500 was all it took for Playground Builders to build a cricket pitch (field), buy equipment and fund travel for the team for one whole year.
Congregation instead of isolation
Brown, a well-known social enterprise consultant has traveled to Afghanistan to support the project, sees first-hand the difference the project has made for children and their communities at large.
“What happens on a playground is congregation, and what happens on the street is isolation,” he emphasized. One of the most disturbing experiences he had in Afghanistan, he said, was seeing daily violence in the streets among young children.
“Particularly boys – you see boys seven, eight, nine years old, fighting everywhere,” he said. “It's the kind of fights you want to pull over and break up...real fighting. When kids are playing in in the streets, they're playing war games.”
“But in a playground, it's brightly coloured, you're swinging, you're sliding, spinning. The games are much more beneficial, and now it's not just other boys you're hanging out with. Because we're targeting young kids, your're also interacting with girls, with people of other tribes, it becomes a real melting pot – not a place of further isolation.”
Mike Varrin, a board member who traveled to the Palestinian territories on his own dime for Playground Builders (as did Brown: the charity reserves nearly all funding for the playground-building costs), saw that a playground was transformative not only for the children, but also their parents and family.
“A playground reaches more than just kids,” Varrin said.
“One of the key things is to create a space for parents to gather, so you can create dialogue among adults.”
Each playground is built with colourful benches nearby so that parents can watch their children as they chat and socialize with other adults. The playground gives people in a war zone a rare public place to socialize in ways they never could before.
Canadians making a difference
Although contributions come from around the world, Canadians (and Whistlerites in particular) are among the biggest supporters of Playground Builders. The cause strikes a chord with young children as well: one of Varrin's favorite examples is a class of grade one students who held a bake sale and raised money until they were able to give a $100 donation.
Christmas is usually the time for a big push for Playground Builders, Brown explains, with donors from Canada and abroad seeking to give something meaningful to mark the occasion. Rather than buying expensive products, people can buy a swing or slide and know they've made a vast difference for people halfway around the world.
“There's lots of families out there where people have everything the need,” Brown said.
"This is a way for people who like to give tangible things as gifts to satisfy their generosity and really feel good about it. A real piece of equipment results from their donation and they get a framed photograph for under the tree."
One thing that donors don't have to worry about with Playground Builders is their funds being misused: because the the organization is run by such a lean team, virtually all the money raised goes directly toward the building and maintaining a playground.
“If you give us $300 for a swing set, it really will be a swing set,” Brown said. “The beauty and simplicity of what we do is that we're one of those few organizations that every dollar counts.”
More than simply providing fun and amusement, the playgrounds can serve as an important symbol for peace for children who will build their country's future. What's more, a new swing set or merry-go-round is one gift that will keep giving, for years after Christmas season is over.
Reynolds puts it best:
"I think the best gift that a child could give their parent is a happy child."
The story of Zainab: how one playground changed a life
Playground Builders often receives correspondence about how a playground has changed a child or children's lives for the better. Here is one story that beautifully illustrates this.
In one letter to Playground Builders, a school principal explains that a young orphan girl in Baghdad named Zainab had always come to school sad and reclusive, having lost both parents to the war.
When the workers came to build a playground, however, the principal noticed that she was smiling as she watched them work.
"The playground really helped release her from PTSD," Reynolds recalled.
Zainab came to the workers later with a bouquet of roses in her hands, asking if she could give present them to whoever was responsible for the playground. When they explained to her that he was far away, in Canada, she asked if the principal could send a flower on her behalf -- in thanks for making her feel happy again.
The letter, which can be read online, shows how life-affirming a small playground can be for children who have suffered from war.
Zainab, holding roses in thanks for the playground
This article was written as part of the Vancouver Observer 'We'll Tell Your Story' package. For inquiries, please write firstname.lastname@example.org