Design and Nature: Considerations for Children in Residential Settings

 By Delfena Mitchell (Belize), on behalf of the Rights of Children in Children’s Homes:

Based on my experience working an orphanage/children’s home/institution, it’s important to say that these children have a number of emotional issues stemming from abuse, neglect and abandonment. Anger is often prominent, with unexpected violent outbursts triggered by real or imagined insults.

These children, especially, need lots of room to run, jump, and positively release their pent up energy. It is quite easy for caregivers to depend on electronics to occupy the children; however this does not provide the outlet the children need. Although our campus sat on five acres with lots of fruit trees and other vegetation, with a swing set and lots of room to play, the children were spending most of their time indoors. There were constant fights or violent outbursts directed toward another child or caregiver. Once we limited watching television to an hour or two on the weekends and encouraged the children to play outside, we saw improvement in their behavior. They were outside running and playing, kicking soccer balls, climbing trees, or playing catch with each other. The toddlers pushed themselves on little tyke bicycles or the older children pushed them.

What made the most significant impact was installing a basketball court and adding a playground for the older children. It was surprising to see both male and females spent equal time on the basketball court. At meals they would discuss the outcome of one game or plan the next. Some would dribble or shoot hoops by themselves when they felt agitated. Many days I’d see a child sitting on the playground platform, quiet and contemplative or with a friend deep in conversation. The caregivers no longer had to think up new ways to keep the children entertained. They loved being outside with the children, observing or even participating in a game; and the children loved being outside. Exhausted at the end of the day, the children slept better, behaved better, appeared happier; and fights and emotional outbursts were definitely reduced.

One nine year old, in particular, would get into terrible temper tantrums, especially if he thought he was being teased. He would knock over chairs, sweep everything off nearby tables, and would even try to hit adults who tried to contain him. I would sit and speak with him about his behavior and we would try to come up with alternative ways he could handle his anger. One way he agreed he could calm himself down before escalating to violence was to remove himself by walking away to a quiet place. His quiet place was atop a tree house where he would climb a rope ladder, sit up above the playground and watch everyone. He was allowed to go to his place of solitude when needed, and this contributed greatly to him managing his behavior.

In my experience, children living in institutions need spaces designed with room to run and jump, room for group play and places where they can find solitude.