October 11, 2016 Ari Hock

Promoting Resiliency through Play

How a parks and recreation department used play as part of its disaster relief efforts

When the flood hit Louisiana this August, it hit hard. At least 13 people died and tens of thousands of homes were affected, causing billions of dollars in property damage. In some parishes, 90% of the structures were affected.

"The flooding came at a tremendous speed. You might have been walking in an area, and 15 minutes later it was underwater. Many people lost their homes, their cars; it was a disaster. I would compare it to Katrina, but without the winds," said Diane Drake of BREC, the subdivision of the state of Louisiana that oversees parks and public spaces in East Baton Rouge.

An abandoned truck sits on Interstate 12 in Louisiana

BREC has been working tirelessly for weeks to assist with disaster relief. They've set up shelters and have provided access to conventional basic needs, like food and water.

They've also provided access to play.

Extensive research confirms the importance of play to helps kids deal with toxic stress. It's in disaster situations that this kind of outlet becomes especially urgent.

Cheryl Michelet of BREC explains:

Just put yourself in the position of a child who has to leave their home, maybe in a boat. They don't know where they're going, they don't know what's been left behind. They're going to this big place with just cots and people who they don't know. And there's nothing to do at all.

At the shelters and emergency camps, BREC was able to give kids a little bit of a daily routine and get them out of this situation of uncertainty into a time where they can just play. They don't have to worry, they don't have to think about what's next. They can just be free and play and move and use their imagination.

Kids confined to these shelters were delighted by BREC on the Geaux, a mobile recreation program designed to get the youngsters active and having fun. It's a truck that opens up to offer all types of playful materials: hula hoops, trampolines, sports equipment, and even an obstacle course. The "fun-mobile" had previously been used at parks and recreation centers. Now, it was serving a similar function in more pressing circumstances.

BREC on the Geaux created opportunities for these kids to just be kids

This playtime also benefitted the parents, many of whom were still trying to process the enormous impact of the flood. "It gave the adults a break, where maybe they needed to be making phone calls or they might just need some private time where they could quietly grieve what had happened without doing that in front of the children," said Cheryl.

Perhaps the most unique and exciting aspect of the play relief came in the form of a Rigamajig. Though it sounds like it came out of a Dr. Seuss book, Rigamajig is actually a collection of wooden planks, pulleys, and ropes designed for hands-on play and learning. BREC received the Rigamajig through a Let's Play Grant in 2014.

Rigamajig encourages creativity and collaboration

The Rigamajig was invaluable at the shelters, in part because it encouraged a sense of community between the kids. Although they didn't know each other coming into the shelter, they quickly found themselves sharing parts and working together to build all sorts of creative contraptions.

"It created new friendships among kids who didn't know each other," recalls Diane. "It helped them to have something shared."

Even when it was time to pack up, Diane was moved by the cooperation the kids demonstrated, volunteering to stack Rigamajig parts. "Although many of them didn't want to stop playing, these simple chores gave them a chance to be part of something normal."

Though it's been several weeks since the flooding, Louisiana is still very much in recovery mode. Many kids are unable to go to school, and don't have access to safe places to play. We're continuing to work with community partners in the region to assess needs and offer support.

When things get rough, a little play can go a long way

Learn more about our work to bring play to communities that have been affected by natural disaster and crises.

Discover what Rigamajig can do for kids near you.

resiliency, baton rouge, louisiana, disaster relief