In Flooded Louisiana, Spaces for Play and Learning Help Children Cope

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Stuart J. Sia/Save the Children

A Save the Children staff member plays cards with children in a child-friendly space the organization set up in a Baton Rouge shelter for flood victims.

A Save the Children staff member plays cards with children in a child-friendly space the organization set up in a Baton Rouge shelter for flood victims.

Stuart J. Sia/Save the Children

“I was able to dance today, and it helped me with my stress,” an 11-year-old girl told Sarita Fritzler, an emergency team leader for Save the Children, which is providing flood assistance in Louisiana.

The child and her family were among more than 5,000 people who turned to emergency shelters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after flooding damaged or destroyed more than 60,000 homes in the state in mid-August.

The family found shelter at Baton Rouge River Center, which on Tuesday still held more than 800 people, including 147 children and 46 teens — and was in its third week of use as a shelter.

The massive complex has cots set up side by side.

“These children are clearly affected by the disaster,” Fritzler said.

Save the Children set up child-friendly spaces in the shelter where children can create arts and crafts, dance, play, make puppets and do other activities, Fritzler said. These kinds of spaces provide psychosocial support to children in emergencies.

“It helps children get back into a sense of normalcy and a sense of routine in a safe space,” she said.

People who are sheltering in River Center have nowhere to go, she said. “They are the most vulnerable.”

“Oftentimes in disasters, children are not in the plan,” she said.

More than 37 percent of children impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed evidence of depression, anxiety or behavior disorders five years later, according to a report by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

Getting behind in school

Baton Rouge’s children have also been missing school. East Baton Rouge public schools are not expected to open until after Labor Day, and those in Livingston Parish may not open for two to three weeks.

Being out of school several weeks just after summer vacation “can set children back for a long time,” Fritzler said. “We need to get them back into supported learning environments as quickly as possible.”

In a joint effort with Baton Rouge Recreation & Parks, known as BREC, Save the Children has set up a temporary learning space in River Center for elementary school-age children, providing science, technology, engineering and math activities and literacy work.

Ten volunteers from AmeriCorps and City Year are being trained to work with the kids, which includes identifying signs of stress that require further assistance.

Save the Children hopes to set up additional learning centers with community partners in Livingston Parish.

Safety and psychosocial supports

At River Center, Save the Children has provided cribs, strollers and high chairs. Safety at the shelter is a priority. The organization has pushed for strict registration of people entering the shelter and has arranged for a separate family bathroom.

Sylvan Taylor, a former classroom teacher, now runs Sprouts Playschool in the Garden District area of Baton Rouge, serving children ages 2 through 4. She has also been taking care of children in her home in the evenings while adults clear out flooded houses.

Children are playing what they’ve experienced or what they’ve been hearing, she said. They’re playing “flood.”

You’ll hear them saying: “Our house is flooded, our house is flooded,” as they play, Taylor said. They gather the toys and move them upstairs.

“I’m hearing more ‘death’ in play,” Taylor said, including burials of animals.

“That’s how [children] process everything,” she said. “It’s different from how adults process.”