Child Friendly Spaces

Sichuan Earthquake Three Year Special

Cheng Jing
17 May 2011

"The total population of Hongbai Town in Shifang County is 6,485, of which 3,286 are female and 1,127 are children. In the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, 159 children were killed and 226 were injured or disabled," said Lian Shengqiong, as she presented an overview of the situation of children and women in Hongbai Town.

In the three years since the earthquake, Ms. Lian, the 40-year-old manager of the UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space in Hongbai Town, has seen a lot and changed a lot. In 2008, when the Child Friendly Space was first set up in Xinghe, the largest temporary settlement camp in Hongbai Town, Ms. Lian was hesitant and somewhat intimidated about the idea of delivering community-based child services. Today, the Child Friendly Space is located in the newly-built Hongbai Town Culture and Activity Centre, and is a recognized provider of children's services among the 1,244 households in the community.

Thinking back on all the people she has met and the huge changes that have taken place during the past three years, Lian is overwhelmed with emotions. These are some of their stories.

"The principle of ‘children first' guides everything that we do"

Little Hao Dong was just four years old when he was badly injured in the earthquake. In the weeks after the earthquake, Hao Dong became bad-tempered and was frequently withdrawn, refusing to communicate with those around him.

Today, a deep scar is still visible along the back of Hao Dong's head, but the 7-year-old is a changed boy. Ever since the Hongbai Child Friendly Space opened in the months after the earthquake, Hao Dong has been a frequent visitor. "There are lots of toys here. And books. And other children." Hao Dong said. While he can still be a shy boy, Hao Dong has become more outgoing and more cheerful, said his grandmother.

Ms. Lian is proud of the progress that Hao Dong has made. Last summer, the Hongbai Child Friendly Space organized summer activities for children in the community, and Hao Dong helped her to keep the Child Friendly Space neat and clean. Since then, Hao Dong has become a regular volunteer at the Child Friendly Space. He has made many friends this way.

"The Child Friendly Space has given children the opportunity to learn about and exercise their rights to participation and protection. It has also given children like Hao Dong the opportunity to help others. The principle of 'Children First' guides everything that we do here," said Ms. Lian.

Hongbai Town Child Friendly Space regularly organizes community events for the children, including sports days, arts days, and drawing and calligraphy exhibitions. Unlike traditional events for children that are decided by adults, however, these activities are organized, from the beginning, with the participation of children. During a community-wide event held last summer, 10-year-old Zhou Fanghan served as Master of Ceremonies, even writing her own script. "Before, I was always timid and reluctant to express myself because I was afraid of being criticized by others. Now, I've learned to accept people's feedback and take their suggestions for improvement positively. I'm excited about having more opportunities to express myself," little Fanghan said, with a glowing smile.

"I've learned to respect children and to listen to them more"

On any given day at the Hongbai Child Friendly Space, there are many preschool-aged children, accompanied by their parents and caregivers. The Child Friendly Spaces are not only a space for children to play, but also a place for young parents and old grandparents alike to learn about child health, nutrition and early child development. The staff of the Child Friendly Spaces supervise parents as they engage in structured, supportive games with their children. In this way, the Child Friendly Spaces are supporting the development of a new child rearing culture in rebuilt communities in the earthquake zone.

One little girl who is a regular visitor to the Child Friendly Space is two-year-old Zhou Xiaocan, who has been coming since she was only six weeks old. The Child Friendly Space has become the window through which the little girl has come to experience the world, explained Xiaocan's grandmother. For Xiaocan's grandmother, the Child Friendly Space has equally been a place for new perspectives and experiences. "In the past, when we were raising our children and they were not obedient, we would get angry and sometimes even physically discipline them. Since coming to the Child Friendly Space, I've become more patient. I've learned to respect children and to listen to them more. This has made it easier to raise them," Xiaocan's grandmother said.