Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Playgrounds make HIV treatment child-friendly

By Martina Tomassini

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Martina Tomassini
Children play with their parents in the playground at Kampong Chhnang Provincial Hospital while waiting for treatment.

KAMPONG CHHNANG, PAILIN, BATTAMBANG, Cambodia, 21 May 2015 – It’s a lively morning in Kampong Chhnang Provincial Hospital; the playground room is filled with ochre-coloured sunshine and giggles. A few children are bouncing around on colourful hippo toys while others keep running up and down a bright red slide. Some parents are playing with their children while others are watching cartoons with them. A teenage girl is sitting on the side, lost in her book.

Established in 2014, this is the latest playground built by UNICEF in a paediatric ward in Cambodia. “In 2007 I led the setting up of playgrounds in Cambodian hospitals so that children with HIV could have a better experience when they go in for treatment. We partnered with NGO SIPAR  and equipped the playground with toys and books for children and adults to read,” explains Sedtha Chin, HIV/AIDS Specialist at UNICEF.

About 100 children living with HIV are treated at Kampong Chhnang Provincial Hospital, where UNICEF provides support to paediatric healthcare and treatment of children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). “Now that we have a playground, children stay as long as required to complete their treatment. Since it is more enjoyable for them to stay at the hospital, there is no crying and no asking to go home,” explains Dr. Sok Kong, Deputy Director and Chief of the Paediatric Ward. When asked how the playground makes his job easier, he answers, “If children have nothing to play with and have to wait they start to cry. This puts me under pressure.”

Chay Theavy* is a 16-year-old HIV girl living with HIV who has been in treatment at the hospital for the past eight years. When asked what she enjoys doing while waiting to see the doctor, she answers shyly, “Reading books or watching cartoons.” As Dr. Sok Kong explains, “The playground benefits all children…it’s good to have books in there: older children can read by themselves; younger ones have books read to them by the playground facilitator or their parents.”

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Martina Tomassini
Chay Theavy* enjoys reading a book in the playground at Kampong Chhnang Provincial Hospital.

The playground at Kampong Chnnang Provincial Hospital is one of the 17 hospital play facilities built by UNICEF across Cambodia. The first one was launched in 2007 at the National Paediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh. “When we provide children with a pleasant reading experience, they are happy to learn and they will also have a better capacity to keep learning later in life. A child’s first contact with books is fundamental,” comments Sipar’s Director.

Pailin Provincial Hospital had its playground opened in July 2014. As of today, 25 children living with HIV are treated here. Dr. Tuy Ratha shares her view about this initiative: “I think that the playground is good: it makes my job easier! Sometimes I examine children in there because they are not scared when they are surrounded by toys, so the process is easier.” The playground also seems to have a trickle effect on the hospital reputation: “Most people in Pailin don’t want to sleep at the hospital but when parents see the playground they think the hospital is a modern one, so they stay,” she concludes.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Martina Tomassini
Two boys reading one of the many books in the playground at Pailin Provincial Hospital.

Battambang Provincial Hospital was equipped with a playground three years ago. Neu Vanta* is the mother of 8-year-old Chang Dara,* who started coming to the hospital in January 2015 for his first treatment after testing positive to HIV in Roka – a village located just a few kilometres away from Battambang which recorded an HIV outbreak earlier this year. When asked if he likes coming to the hospital, Dara answers, “Yes, because there are many other children and lots of toys. My favourite activity is drawing and painting.”

15-year-old Mao Sokhom* is also living with HIV and from Roka, where she lives her grandfather. She started her antiretroviral treatment (ARV) at Battambang Provincial Hospital in December 2014. Reading books is what she enjoys the most when she is in the playground: she loves traditional Khmer stories about ancestors and kings.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Martina Tomassini
A playground counsellor explain basic hygiene practice in the playground at Battambang Provincial Hospital.

Sngiem Sokha is one of the playground facilitators. She was trained by SIPAR in Phnom Penh and started working at Battambang Provincial Hospital in August 2010. Storytelling, drawing and kamishibai are some of the activities she leads to engage with the children. Kamishibai, also informally known as “fake TV”, is a Japanese story-box theatre where the narrator pulls colourful illustrated boards through a box while telling a story.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Martina Tomassini
Playground facilitator Sngiem Sokha tells a story with kamishibai, a Japanese story-box theatre, in the playground at Battambang Provincial Hospital.

When asked what she enjoys the most about her job, Sokha answers, “Reading books to children! And they like it too. One time, a boy came back to the playground saying that he told his friends at school that I am very good at storytelling – better than his teachers!” she says proudly. We meet Sou Smeang, another facilitator, and ask her why she decided to work with children living with HIV. Her answer is simple yet powerful: “I am an orphan myself. I like helping others in a similar situation.” 

Not just games

UNICEF’s partner SIPAR plays an important role in making the playground initiative a success: the NGO provides the books for the playground library and trains the facilitators in storytelling, theatre and drawing skills to lead play and educational activities for the children. 

The playground library is open to the public, so that a wider public can benefit from it. “In Cambodia there is no reading culture but we want to change this with our children. It’s not difficult for them to adopt new habits; the interest in stories is universal across cultures,” comments Hok Sothik, Sipar’s Director. 

By introducing playgrounds in paediatric wards across Cambodia, UNICEF is both making HIV treatment child-friendly and encouraging reading among children of all ages. 

*name changed to protect identity

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