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Playground Builders bring joy to the world, one swing at a time

Playground Builders founder Keith Reynolds surrounded by children in Kabul, Afghanistan. All the children in this photo have mothers who are serving prison sentences. Photos in this article courtesy of Playground Builders.

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.

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