Combining child protection with child development: child-friendly spaces in Tearfund’s North Sudan programme
by Anne McCulloch, Tearfund May 2009

Child-friendly spaces are widely used by many agencies working in emergency situations or in areas of continuing crisis to provide temporary activities and support for children. They are recognised by UNICEF as a key child protection strategy. As well as aiming to protect children, such spaces can also foster child development. This article describes Tearfund’s use of child-friendly spaces in its programme in Darfur.

Tearfund’s Darfur programme

In January 2005, Tearfund began providing child-friendly spaces in highly volatile Beida Locality, south-west of Geneina in Darfur. The programme started in response to requests from the local community for additional support to displaced children who had no access to schooling. Currently, 18 centres are run each morning throughout the locality. In June 2008, these centres were attended by over 5,000 children, from two distinct target groups:

  • Children at the right age for school, but who do not have access to school because they have been displaced to towns which do not have the capacity to host them in existing schools, there are no or insufficient IDP schools and/or their parents are unable to pay school fees.
  • Children between two and seven years of age, who are too young for school and are unable to access preschools (there are only two alternative small preschools in the entire locality).

Why not just address problems of access by paying school fees? With thousands of children in need of access to education, this would be impossible. It would be difficult to safely distribute cash without creating a security risk for staff and adding to the insecurity of the children receiving the funds. It would also be difficult to select who should receive fees, and to keep them accountable for spending the money as intended.

The child-friendly spaces provide physical safety, psychosocial activities and educational assistance for children five days a week. Outdoor play areas, sports pitches and volleyball courts have been developed. These spaces also provide children without access to school with an opportunity to enjoy informal education. They provide a routine and a structure for children whose lives have been heavily disrupted, and also give them the support of an adult from outside their family.

The child-friendly spaces are organised into three age groups. Children who attend are between two and 16, although there is no upper or lower age limit. The majority of children are between the ages of three and 12. Each day the children join together at the start and end to sing a wide range of songs. In age-appropriate groups the children participate in numeracy and literacy education, organised group recreational and art activities (painting, drawing, clay modelling), organised group sport (football, volleyball, rounders), free play on outdoor play equipment, drama and storytelling and make-believe play activities (house corner, puppetry). They are also given informal teaching in life skills, especially health and hygiene.

Each child-friendly space has a weekly timetable for each age group. Spaces are run by three local facilitators (volunteers) who receive small amounts of food as an incentive each month, in the form of sugar, oil, wheat flour or milk powder, depending on the location. Food incentives are given as a way of thanking the facilitators for their time and to help them support their families. The facilitators are not salaried in the hope that, in the long term, communities themselves will take the programme over.

The facilitators are trained twice a month on the various activities and on how to provide psychosocial support to the children in their care. With Tearfund staff they have developed a folder for each centre containing ideas on different activities. This includes suggestions from other NGOs and ideas drawn from the Sudanese curriculum. Ideas include explanations of how to make toys like cars from empty tins, games such as tag and hide and seek, simple ways to teach numbers by counting objects, ideas for setting up a house corner and learning the words to songs. Children who have attended child-friendly spaces should be able to integrate into mainstream schools more easily because of their prior access to some formal routine and learning activities. This benefit was noted in a recent external evaluation of the programme.

All facilitators have signed a good conduct policy (developed collaboratively between Tearfund and UNICEF) and have had extensive child protection training. A register of children’s names and key details is kept for each centre. This includes notes on children classed as Extremely Vulnerable Individuals (EVIs) according to UNHCR criteria. This enables Tearfund staff to ensure that the most vulnerable children receive additional support as required, including access to non-food items for their families, referral to other agencies or visits by a facilitator to the child’s home.

In each location a local teacher has been designated to link with the child-friendly spaces. Ministry of Education representatives for the area have been involved in the selection of these teachers, and have provided ideas on setting up and running the centres. In several locations IDP schools share resources and facilities, giving IDPs a place to store their things and providing additional shade to teach under. In the evenings the centres are open for teenagers and young people (aged roughly between 12 and 25).


Key learning

  • Use incentives to pay volunteers, to provide a livelihood contribution.
  • Ensure that facilitators have the skills needed to run child-friendly spaces to a high standard.
  • Build storerooms so that resources are readily available, and regularly restock supplies so that facilitators feel confident in using the resources, knowing that they will be replaced.
  • Provide regular training and develop resources around which facilitators can structure activities at the centres.
  • Building play equipment on each site can help increase the range of activities children can be involved in. Play equipment is permanently in place and so is always available.
  • Link with the Ministry of Education to help ensure that child-friendly spaces are integrated into national systems.

In Darfur, UNICEF provides kits containing many of the resources needed to run child-friendly spaces, including volley-ball nets, volley balls, footballs, small balls, paper, pencils, exercise books and small chalk boards. In addition, Tearfund provides chairs and mats, blackboards and chalk, outdoor play facilities including sand pits, seesaws, slides and swings, access to clean water, latrines, hand-washing facilities and soap and shelters.

Initially the centres used a UNICEF tent or a racuba(a wooden frame with a straw roof) for shelter. However, as many of the centres have now been running for more than two years, a more permanent structure was required. In 2007 Tearfund built 14 more substantial centres in Beida Locality. Each was painted with Arabic numbers and alphabet pictures, and each has a purpose statement to facilitate community understanding about the centres. Each centre also has a store which allows easy access to resources.

In some locations it is not appropriate to build such centres as communities hope to leave the area and return to their former homes. In these locations racubasare still used, with resources stored in metal boxes in a nearby home. It is anticipated that, once there is no longer a need for child-friendly spaces, the shelters can be used for other community activities.

Psychosocial support

Child-friendly spaces can be a valuable tool in providing social support for children, seeking to build on children’s resilience and natural ability to recover while limiting the long-term effects of conflict. Child-friendly spaces, along with youth activities and children’s clubs, which Tearfund also provides, encourage the development of pro-social behaviours for children, including enhanced self-esteem, hope and a sense of self-efficacy. Evidence from focus group discussions held in December 2008 (three years into the programme) in all the locations with child-friendly spaces suggest that relations among children, and between children and adults, have improved.

Child-friendly spaces, youth activities and clubs provide an environment that evidence suggests can mitigate the impact of crisis on children. They do not provide psychiatric counselling or group therapy, but are focused on fostering children’s natural resilience and coping mechanisms. Tearfund’s child-friendly spaces work with children in constructive ways, drawing on their own capacities and on the strengths and assets of their communities. Under the supervision of a caring adult, these centres provide children with a safe environment in which they can play, socialise, learn lifesaving information and express themselves. By participating in arts and crafts, games, cooperative learning, team-building activities, drama and structured educational lessons and sports, children are helped to come to terms with their experiences.

Various guidelines are available to help ensure that psychosocial activities are of good quality. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, a collaboration between UN agencies and international NGOs, were published in 2007. The guidelines state that protecting and promoting mental health and psychosocial wellbeing is the responsibility of all humanitarian agencies and workers. In addition, Tearfund has its own internal policy and quality standards on child development as part of the agency’s commitment to accountability. These guidelines lay out the essential first steps in protecting or promoting mental health and psychosocial wellbeing in the midst of emergencies. They identify useful practices and flag potentially harmful ones, and clarify how different approaches complement one another. The guidelines have a clear focus on social interventions and support, in line with the approach Tearfund has taken in developing its child-friendly spaces, youth activities and clubs in Beida Locality. UNICEF also has guidelines on minimum standards when running child-friendly spaces, which Tearfund has adapted to the Darfur context through participation in the Child Protection Working Group. Adaptations involved ensuring that the guidelines matched the service that NGOs in Darfur provide at their centres, so for example there was no need to include a section on catering or laundry.

Child-friendly spaces are appropriate in the context of Darfur because they provide temporary informal education for displaced children in what will hopefully prove to be transitional locations, before they return to their original homes. Once they do so, more permanent education facilities can be provided. As the Darfur conflict continues, however, Tearfund has started to support the government in building additional classrooms. We are also continuing to provide training for teachers connected to Tearfund’s child-related activities, and working closely with the government, local commissioners, other NGOs and UNICEF and UNHCR in an effort to provide more schools to which all children can have access.


Anne McCulloch, an educational psychologist, is Tearfund’s Health Promotion and Children’s Activities Advisor in North Sudan. Her email address is


Recommended reading

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, 2007,

Psychosocial Working Group, Psychosocial Intervention in Complex Emergencies: A Framework for Practice, working paper, October 2003,

Maryanne Loughry and Alastair Ager, The Refugee Experience – Psychosocial Training Module(revised edition), Refugees Study Centre, Oxford University, 2001.

Laura Arnston and Christine Knudsen, Save the Children Psychosocial Care and Protection of Children in Emergencies – A Field Guide, Save the Children Federation, 2004.

Mona Macksoud, Helping Children Cope with the Stress of War – A Manual for Parents and Teachers, United Nations Children’s Fund Publications, 2000.