Cambodia: Success through Play

Cambodian children learn through play.


If you're born with a disability in Cambodia, and you're not ahead by the time you enter school, you're already behind. Handicap International's 2012 study of 18,926 Cambodian children aged between two and nine found that a staggering 10% had a disability. Stigma, coupled with a lack of support services, has meant that these children are unlikely to ever achieve their full potential. 

I was lucky enough to see first-hand what Handicap International does to ensure that children with disabilities are not left behind. While visiting Handicap International's operations in Cambodia, I attended the opening of a “play stimulation” room for children ages five and under at a health center that's 40 miles from Siem Reap. The room is part of a wider Handicap International maternal and child health initiative aimed at diagnosing disabilities in children at a young age so that an early intervention is possible. The health center provided the space, as generous Koreans funded the construction of a new maternity wing. It will provide a venue for all mothers visiting the center to play with their children and share their parenting adventures.

In Cambodian culture there is no special day when parents give their children presents. The day I visited the center was the nearest the children here came to understanding what Christmas Day is like for the average Westerner. Indeed, play with toys is an alien concept for most of the parents and children. Poverty has left families with few opportunities to purchase toys. Even Handicap International's local staff members had to be taught how to use the toys. Now they are showing parents how they can improvise toys using items in the home. 

Research has consistently shown that parents are the key factor in determining outcomes for children with disabilities. However, getting parents on board to take an active role in their child's education and development is not a foregone conclusion. Parents are often ashamed of having a child with a disability and aren't clear what they can do to help their child realize his or her full potential. They often lack the knowledge to recognize impairments in their child before a permanent disability develops. Even if parents do want to help, they may not have the money required to travel to clinics for health screenings and check-up services. Handicap International works with the parents to find out what they want for their children and then develops a plan with parents to achieve those goals.

On the opening day of the play room, Handicap International staff removed all of the packaging on the new toys and presented them to the children. The kids immediately engaged and proudly showed their parents their block constructions and ability to catch magnetic fish.

It wasn't until I looked back at my photographs that I noticed that it was the parents who wore the biggest smiles. It seemed to me that Handicap International had given the children toys that their parents never had and, beyond that, the chance for the parents to see their children's eyes light up with the joy of play.

The opportunity to play is another vital piece in the puzzle of improving lives for children with disability. Handicap International also offers prenatal services for mothers to help prevent disabilities, health screenings for newborns to identify disabilities early, outreach initiatives that use community health volunteers and local government officials to identify children who are missing key development milestones,  and surgical and rehabilitation interventions at hospitals. If the early signs are anything to go by, the parents who came to the play room will be surpassing their original goals for their children. In doing so, they will be giving them the best chance to succeed in school and thereafter.

Edward Winter, Director of Institutional Funding, Handicap International U.S., sent this report while on assignment in Cambodia.