Grant holder
Dr Sandra El-Gemayel, Institute of Education, University College London
Project status

This study adopted and explored Froebelian principles and sought unique insights into young Syrian and Iraqi refugee children’s play in Lebanon.

Project summary

Armed conflict and displacement have extremely harmful effects on children and their families. They constrain children’s opportunities to play, to learn through play, and for their unique potential to flourish. Nonetheless, there is a lack of in-depth research conducted into the consequences of conflict and displacement for young refugee children’s experiences of childhood and for their play in different host environments.

Through ethnographic case studies of four young Iraqi and Syrian child refugees in the northern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, this thesis presents unique insights into the children’s family lives, the children’s play and the violations of their rights in Lebanon. Underpinned by Froebelian principles of the integrity of childhood in its own right, the thesis theorises how the concept of ‘childhood’ is being constructed in Lebanon during the global refugee crisis, and identifies possible ways to improve play opportunities for refugee children in Lebanon, arguing that they are in a state of ‘in between-ness’. The study follows a ‘day in the life’ methodology with four Iraqi and Syrian case study refugee children (4-8 years old) and their families, supplemented by questionnaire data from Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese adults (n=100), semi-structured interviews with professionals working with refugee children in Lebanon, and an observation in a school for refugee children in Beirut’s Northern suburbs.

Sandra El Gemayel Research Image-playing-on-balcony
Image from Sandra El Gemayal's research into young Syrian and Iraqi refugee children’s play in Lebanon.

Key Findings

  • Children’s experiences of childhood and play were affected by their own and their families’ status as ‘temporarily displaced’ persons rather than as refugees.
  • Children had limited or no access to high quality education. School helped children overcome fear when their teachers were qualified and when children made friends. However, children who attended low-quality schools were often exposed to racism, bullying and corporal punishment, increasing their fears and leading to additional traumatisation. This pushed many children to drop out of school.
  • Children were separated from nuclear and/or extended family, negatively affecting their experiences of childhood and play. Separation from their families led to changes in ECEC provision, as nuclear and extended family members had previously played an important role in children’s formal and informal education, care and upbringing.
  • Cultural and social communities were dismantled, bringing cultural practices to a halt.
  • Poverty led many families to cohabit in overcrowded, small, unsanitary and sometimes dangerous apartments. This exposed children to a wide range of additional problems that affected their mental and physical health and limited their access to space for play.
  • Forced displacement, irregular status and policy structures led to a change in power balance among families. Some children had no choice but to work to provide for their families, placing their lives and wellbeing at risk.
  • Constraints on children’s play While all the case study children had time to play, other resources such as materials, space and play partners were lacking, limiting their play opportunities. Fear and surveillance also limited children’s play, and gender was used as a justification to limiting freedom of movement, expression, and play.
  • Despite many hardships, play endured, providing children with a means to escape from their liminal state through media and imagination.

Watch Sandra El-Gemayel's Froebel Trust webinar recorded in July 2020 all about her research

Next Steps

This study has highlighted the dearth of research conducted into Iraqi and Syrian young refugee children’s constructions of childhood and play in Lebanon and on ways of improving their play opportunities. Next steps focus on raising policy makers’, practitioners’, and academics’ awareness of the situation of young child refugees in Lebanon, drawing attention to the barriers that stand in children’s way of a happy and healthy childhood with rights, and that force them into a liminal state.

To date, I have presented preliminary findings at several conferences, workshops, seminars and lectures and have begun publishing findings through a book chapter and a blog post. Further dissemination through conference presentations and publications in high-impact journals is underway.

Regarding further research, childhood and play in the Middle East are two highly under-researched areas that require further attention. Future recommendations for research include:

  • A longitudinal ethnographic study with young Syrian and Iraqi children and their families in Lebanon, documenting how diverse factors shape constructions of childhood over time, and how play unfolds over time
  • Studying the childhoods and play of refugee children who live in diverse types of accommodation (informal settlements, residential and non-residential accommodation) across Lebanon’s governorates, and within different family structures, using a ‘day in the life’ approach
  • Research into the childhoods and play of young street and working refugee children as well as very young children (0-3 years old) in Lebanon.

Access the complete thesis here

Research documents

Final Report Sandra El Gemayel PhD 2020