By Salma Akter

Center for Peace and Development & Gibbs College of Architecture, University of Oklahoma Norman, 73019, Oklahoma


1. Introduction

Refugees, numbering 108.4 million globally, endure unparalleled hardships, facing humiliation, exploitation, and neglect across every facet of their existence (UNHCR, 2023). Among them, 43.3 million are children under 18, rendering them particularly vulnerable to life-threatening dangers (UNHCR, 2023). Throughout their journey, from pre- to post-migration, refugee children grapple with profound physical and emotional distress, often exacerbated by the traumas of witnessing violence in their home countries. In the confines of refugee camps with multidimensional infrastructural vulnerabilities including housing, safety, education,  economy, and sanitation (Figure 1 -top), refugee children face post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), underscoring the urgent need for interventions to safeguard their well-being and protection (Alami, 2020).

Child-friendly spaces (CFSs) stand as a cornerstone in international humanitarian aid, specifically designed to cater to refugee children's mental health and psychosocial well-being (PSWB). Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) is the first humanitarian initiative for refugee children launched by UNICEF in Kosovo in April 1999, offering a beacon of hope amid crises for displaced children (Ager & Metzler, 2012; Hermosilla et al., 2019). These sanctuaries provide a nurturing environment, fostering safety, playfulness, and conducive learning experiences. Originating in response to the Kosovo conflict, CFS swiftly expanded its reach, addressing the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, demonstrating its efficacy as a vital short- to medium-term solution (UNICEF, 2009).

The key components and objectives1 of CFSs include 1) mobilising communities around the protection and well-being of all children, including highly vulnerable children; 2) establishing safe physical environments conducive to play and learning, acquiring contextually relevant skills, and receiving social support, and 3) offer inter‐sectoral support for all children in the realisation of their rights, while also offering structured activities within a consistent schedule (Metzler et al., 2019).  In broad terms, CFSs are proposed as centers for refugee children, providing areas for play, education, economic support, and protection. (Figure 1-B). Furthermore, CFSs serve as platforms for raising awareness within communities about the vulnerabilities children face during crises. Through integrated programming, CFSs deliver essential services and support, encompassing education, recreation, health, and psychosocial assistance. Children under the age of 18 are the primary participants and beneficiaries of CFSs, which have been implemented across the globe, notably in camps spanning Asia, Africa, and beyond (Hermosilla et al., 2019).

Over time, CFSs have become a standard component of emergency responses, with establishments in diverse regions such as Angola, Chad, Colombia, East Timor, El Salvador, Gujarat-India, Bam-Iran, Lebanon, Liberia, Northern Caucasus-Russia (Barai, 2022), Occupied Palestinian Territories (Veronese et al., 2020), Pakistan (Hirani, 2014; Metzler et al., 2019), Somalia (Metzler et al., 2014), and Syria (Hermosilla et al., 2019). After the 2004 tsunami, numerous CFSs were established in Aceh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Southern India as short-term camps near temporary shelters or as community-based initiatives (Barai, 2022). Generally, CFSs are short-term, temporary initiatives primarily facilitated by NGOs or governmental bodies, with UNICEF playing a crucial role in their establishment, coordination, and setting of minimum standards.

Despite operational nuances, the core elements of CFSs remain steadfast: the provision of secure, nurturing environments conducive to play and learning; the training and support of facilitators with a focus on community and children's involvement; and the implementation of structured activities, including life skills, within a consistent schedule (Ager & Metzler, 2022; Browne, 2013; Wessells & Kostelny, 2013). Though CFS acts as a baseline for humanitarian aiders, it is rarely explored whether they follow the UNICEF proposed design and planning recommendations of CFS. This study therefore needs to explore 1) what are the services and facilities of CFSs serving refugees over the last decade; 2) what are the challenges of CFS to halt the well-being of refugee children, and 3) what UNICEF-recommended physical environment qualities are available in the current CFSs. What are the design guidelines for inclusive CFSs to ensure refugee children’s overall well-being? This study aims to walk with past literature to explore those queries.

2. Principles and Actions of Child-Friendly Space: An Overview

CFSs are mainly guided by six principles that prioritise children's protection, a psychosocial supportive environment, and education within inclusive, non-discriminatory spaces (Ager et al., 2009; Browne, 2013; Davie et al., 2014). These principles underscore the holistic nature of CFSs, mobilising communities to safeguard children and bolster their resilience. 1) secure and "safe" environments for children; 2) stimulating and supportive environment; 3) existing structures and capacities within a community; 4) participatory approach for the design and Implementation traditions; 5) support integrated services and programs developing, and 6) CFSs adopt an inclusive, non-discriminatory, coordinated, interagency, and multisectoral approach.

Safety measures include adopting a Code of Conduct, providing clean water and gender-segregated latrines, and removing physical hazards. These measures highlighted in the CFS design principles  should also incorporate culturally appropriate diverse activities like song, drama, and sports for fostering inclusivity. Included should be structured group activities with free play choice, incorporating both girls and boys emphasized in the CFSs’s principle. Another key component is that CFSs should be participatory, including NGOs, Government, and community-based projects. needs. Girls’ and boys’ participation is essential for promoting inclusion and equity in CFSs (Figure 3-C).

Figure 1:  Refugee children Vulnerabilities in Refugee camps (A); Four key objectives of CFSs(B); the summary of principles of CFSs (C). Source: Author created based on UNICEF’s CFS guidelines (UNICEF, 2009).

3. Services and facilities of CFSs serving refugees across the globe. 

Child-friendly spaces (CFS) serve three primary objectives (Lilley et al., 2014; Metzler et al., 2019; Metzler et al., 2013; Wessells & Kostelny, 2013). Firstly, they prioritize nurturing children's emotional and social well-being, while also offering support for life skills and knowledge development in certain cases. Secondly, CFSs serve as protective environments, shielding children from abuse, exploitation, and violence. Thirdly, they aim to foster community involvement to bolster mechanisms supporting children. While education, protection, and health constitute the core sectors of CFSs, these spaces extend beyond, integrating with various community resources and services like formal/informal schooling, health, and social services. Past literature also highlights different types of services and facilities including space and activities required for refugee children living within and outside the camp.

The refugees ' studies highlight formal and informal activities that engage refugee children within their communities (Chen et al., 2021; Huss et al., 2021). Formal amenities such as playgrounds and sports facilities promote physical well-being, while informal activities, preferred by refugee children, foster community attachment (Chen et al., 2021). For instance, in Zaatari, Jordan, refugee children are drawn to "found spaces" nearby, demonstrating the significance of informal engagement within CFSs (Woolley, 2021a). Efforts to create community engagement and attachment through activities at both formal and informal scales contribute to the holistic support provided by CFSs for vulnerable children (MUTUA, 2014; Weir et al., 2023).

Educational facilities are a cornerstone within CFSs, acknowledged by UNICEF for their  pivotal role in emergencies (Kirk & Winthrop, 2007; Kostelny & Wessells, 2013; Shohel, 2022). Not only do they uphold children's fundamental right to education, but they also facilitate their protection and normal developmental trajectory. Within CFSs, the inclusion of vocational education underscores the need for adaptable learning frameworks, particularly in refugee contexts. For example, researchers like Barai and Faruk identified that colorful spaces with cultural motifs in the learning environments play a pivotal role in establishing resilient Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs) in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh (Barai & Faruk, 2023).

Health education and healthcare space and facilities must be incorporated into CFSs to meet UNICEF’s goal. Each CFS should have a dedicated area for treating injuries or minor illnesses. Additionally, a range of activities, including play, storytelling, and organized sports, help foster children's self-esteem and resilience in the face of trauma (Kisombe, 2020) and promote age-appropriate health and life skills (UNICEF, 2009).

Safety and security considerations are paramount in CFS design, as highlighted by studies conducted across various contexts (Al-Khalaileh, 2004; Kostelny & Wessells, 2013; Lilley et al., 2014; Metzler et al.). Measures such as secure fencing and trained personnel help mitigate external risks, promoting a sense of safety among adolescents (Barai, 2022; Cavazzoni et al., 2021; Hermosilla et al., 2019; Karin, 2020; Metzler et al., 2023).

Site selection/ Location of CFSs must be carefully assessed to avoid potential hazards, as observed in Uganda (Hermosilla et al., 2019; UNICEF, 2009). A safe and nurturing physical and emotional environment is central to CFS integration, as advocated by Wessells & Kostelny (2013). CFSs also need to incorporate indoor and outdoor facilities to offer versatile play activities (Figure 3-A- D). They should be set up in  accessible locations to foster social integration among peers, but also facilitate meaningful relationships with caring adults. Locally available building materials like bamboo, brick, tent, etc. can be implemented for CFS and learning centers for refugee children, as seen in Pakis, Bangladesh, Nepal (UNICEF, 2011).

In crises, the provision of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) facilities remains fundamental, as emphasised by Wardeh and Marques (2021). Gender-specific toilets, as demonstrated in UNICEF's temporary learning center in Nepal (UNICEF, 2011), must be included in CFS design to meet diverse user needs, contributing to creating safe spaces for children. Furthermore, fostering a sense of place attachment is essential in CFS planning, ensuring children feel connected to their environment. Initiatives in North Sudan have accommodated younger siblings alongside older children, showing adaptability and inclusivity in CFS programming  (Crawley, 2010; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2010).

Inclusive service facilities are essential to ensure that CFSs cater to the diverse needs of children, including those with disabilities and language differences. Group activities within CFSs play a crucial role in reducing social isolation and aiding healing through creative expression and play (Kilinc, 2015). Different types of play centers and play toys incorporated to enhance children's physical and mental activities are also essential for CFSs. (Figure 2D).

Human-friendly infrastructure, including ergonomic furniture and vibrant, engaging spaces, are the priorities of the design of CFSs. Makani centers in Jordan exemplify this approach, offering multifunctional indoor spaces and colorful outdoor areas that reflect socio-cultural identity (Woolley, 2021b). Such comprehensive design elements contribute to the overall effectiveness of CFSs in promoting the well-being and development of children in crises. Culturally responsive and locally available building materials need to be incorporated for CFSs’ design principles as well (UNICEF, 2009).

Figure 2: (A) Indoor and outdoor space facilities for children; (B) A CFS Built in a camp after the earthquake in Turkey; (C) Different types of Activities facilities in CFS in Bangladesh; (D) Save the Children Safe Spaces-Training Support; Safe Spaces: Design and Set-up; (E and F) Temporary learning center in Pakistan and Aluronda adopted locally available materials. Source: (UNICEF, 2009); (Kabir, 2020); (UNICEF and University of Pittsburgh, 2004); Child friendly spaces | UNICEF;(UNICEF, 2011).

Economic empowerment within CFSs is crucial, offering a nurturing environment that supports children's development. Refugees, often marginalized socioeconomically, face barriers to employment, housing, and documentation, compounding their vulnerability (Brun & Maalouf, 2022). During economic turmoil in refugee camps, CFSs play an essential role in bolstering coping mechanisms through tailored activities and services. Vocational training and life skills opportunities are other paramount features  included in CFS designs. For example, Jabbar & Zaza (2016) demonstrated how vocational programs for women refugees not only empower them but also stimulate entrepreneurship and employment, contributing to Millennium Development Goal 32 which refers to the goal to “promote gender equality and empower women” as noted in the United Nation development Program (UNDP, 2015).  By introducing vocational training, parental support programs, and youth clubs, CFSs create multidimensional economic opportunities, especially crucial in single-mother households where children often contribute to family income (Ager et al., 2013).

However, while CFSs show moderate impacts on economic sectors, they often primarily involve younger children, with a limited engagement of older youth (Panter-Brick et al., 2018). Engaging youth poses challenges due to household livelihood pressures, necessitating more tailored approaches to meet their needs and interests (Hermosilla et al., 2019). Collaborative efforts between governments and civil society are imperative to design resilient CFSs that address economic crises affecting adolescents, ensuring child-centered approaches that safeguard against exploitative practices like child labor. Ultimately, CFSs must prioritize meeting the basic needs of children and families while fostering their economic resilience and well-being (Kostelny & Wessells, 2013; Linton et al., 2018).

4. Challenges Abounding in Child-Friendly Spaces for Refugee Children's Well-being

The CFS Program in the Refugee Context operates as a distinct entity, separate from UNICEF's Child-Friendly City Framework (CFCF), lacking specific intervention goals and often maintaining an open-ended nature. Limited exploration has been conducted regarding CFSs' holistic approach to address the physical, social, economic, and psychological healing needs of children. Scholars like Cilliers and Cornelius (2019) argue that child-friendly environments go beyond mere play spaces, serving as platforms for children to develop their understanding of childhood and values. Various studies underscore the pivotal role of the built environment in CFSs, influencing community life, emotions, and physical activities (Adamakis et al., 2023; Alwan, 2016; Barai, 2022; Hadid, 2018).

Engaging older children within CFSs remains a formidable task, with limited evidence showcasing their impact across domains (Panter‐Brick, Hadfield, et al., 2018). Addressing the unique needs and circumstances of youth within humanitarian contexts demands tailored intervention approaches (Hermosilla et al., 2019). Collaborative efforts between government and civil society are imperative to design resilient CFSs capable of mitigating the economic crises affecting adolescents, ensuring interventions are child-centered (Hermosilla et al., 2019).

Security concerns within CFSs pose significant challenges, with disparities observed between sites like Ethiopia and Uganda regarding safety measures (Hermosilla et al., 2019). An ideal CFS should prioritize proximity to communities, provide conducive learning and playing environments, and ensure security, including access to essential facilities such as WASH  services (Schmitt et al., 2021). Gender-specific and disability-friendly infrastructures are essential for resilient CFSs, ensuring inclusivity and accessibility (Barai, 2022; Mansur, 2021; MUTUA, 2014).

The importance of indoor and outdoor activities in CFSs cannot be overstated, as they serve as crucial outlets for children's development and well-being (Lilley et al., 2014). Safety issues, including traffic concerns in urban refugee camps (ABUZAID, 2022), highlight the need for meticulous planning and surveillance during CFS design (Allport et al., 2019).

Furthermore, the incorporation of sports and physical activities within CFSs is vital for providing psychosocial support to adolescent refugees, yet existing programs often lack inclusivity and fail to address the specific needs of girls (Islam, 2019). Social and cultural factors, such as socio-economic obligations and purdah/pardah3 (e.g., veil), further complicate the establishment of truly 'child-friendly' spaces found in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh (Rahman, 2020). The spatial integration of CFSs within communities remains an understudied aspect, necessitating a more comprehensive understanding of their holistic impact on addressing childhood crises (MUTUA, 2014). The majority of the CFS includes only children as main participants whereas there is no evidence of CFS being an impactful intervention for older children across any domain. Engaging youth is therefore recognized as challenging in humanitarian contexts given the pressures on household livelihoods (Panter‐Brick, Dajani, et al., 2018). This suggests that CFS  intervention approaches need to be more overtly shaped to the interests and circumstances of youth (Hermosilla et al., 2019). Both government and civil society capacities need to integrate to develop resilient CFSs for fighting against the economic crises of adolescents (Kostelny & Wessells, 2013; Olney et al., 2019; Salemi et al., 2018). 

Moreover, challenges in CFSs include: lack of multi-sectoral support causing coordination issues; extended duration neglecting transition and sustainability; disparities in age and gender support posing risks; minimal inter-agency coordination leading to duplication; and insufficient community participation causing delayed service delivery in emergencies (UNICEF, 2009).

5. Implications and Recommendations for Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs) in Refugee Camps

The study delves into the implications and recommendations for enhancing Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs) within refugee camps. Participants perceive existing CFS guidelines and models as moderately resilient in addressing the multifaceted crises faced by refugee children. Key attributes influencing resilience include the necessity for spacious indoor and outdoor play areas to alleviate crowded conditions and aid in trauma healing. Initiatives like human resource programs and vibrant indoor spaces contribute to reducing spatial crises. Gender-specific facilities and safety measures are crucial for fostering the self-identity and growth of girls, aligning with literature on communal life regulation within refugee camps.

Enhanced community participation and empowerment within CFSs are recommended for long-term planning and interventions (Metzler et al., 2019), promoting self-actualization and resilience among refugee children (Chen & Knöll, 2022; Woolley, 2021b). Resilient CFSs are viewed as dynamic processes adaptable to sudden difficulties, underscoring the importance of quality-built environments (e.g., wall, floor, ceiling, art center, music corner) for children's well-being (Wessells & Kostelny, 2013). 

However, the study identifies a gap in children's involvement in the design and planning stages of CFSs, typically overseen by NGOs. A more inclusive and child-centered approach is advocated, aligning with UNICEF's Child-Friendly City Framework (Vidigal Coachman, 2020). Additionally, the potential of CFSs as healing spaces through their physical structures remains underexplored, highlighting the need for further research on how built environments can impact children's psychological well-being.

6. Proposed Design Guidelines for Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs) in Refugee Camps

Based on the previous literature, this study proposes an inclusive CFS conceptual model to respond to children's crises in refugee camps. The proposed model (Figure 3) has sought to emphasize the performance of CFSs on different scales. The model was not limited to the interconnectivity among different architectural components of CFS, presenting a static relationship. Instead, the model focused on the dynamic nature of the built environment and how the CFS can respond/accommodate. The proposed design model considers spatial, physical, economic, and social considerations (UNICEF, 2009), while it also embraces socio-ecological perspectives, acknowledging the impact of contextual realities, culture, and social norms on the resilience process (Theron & Van Breda, 2021). While CFS has been conceptualized as a short-term intervention, it should also contribute to the long-term impact of bridging the gap to achieve resilience.

The proposed model (Figure 3E-F) is an evolution from initial design concepts outlined in a bubble diagram (Figure 3A-B). It integrates four primary facilities: 1) indoor and outdoor play areas; 2) healthcare facilities with sleeping/rest areas and sanitation; 3) education and economic zones; and 4) accommodation for providers/staff portrayed in Figure 3B. The design adheres to UNICEF guidelines, with 50 square meters allotted, including 9.29 square meters for sleeping/indoor activities, following the allocation per child as per UNICEF standards. Hypothetical sites were utilized to visualize the physical layout of CFSs, with a focus on South Asian and Middle East regions and lower-middle-income countries (LMCs), considering their prevalence in these regions (Kane et al., 2014). Building materials were selected based on the context of South Asia, with examples from countries like Pakistan, Nepal, and Uganda, where bamboo, brick, and earth are commonly used (UNICEF, 2011).

Figure 3: Proposed model of CFSs; A) Conceptual schematic design; B) Four Aspects of CFSs; C, D) Plan of CFSs; E, F) Perspective and interior view of CFSs; G, HI) Interior of CFSs. Source: (Author, 2024)

The proposed model (Figure 3) serves to illustrate the physical layout of the CFSs, integrating both indoor and outdoor playing and leisure activities. It features a designated space for parents, ensuring their presence for the safety and security of children. Additionally, healthcare facilities are included to promote access to essential services such as immunization, nutrition education, and hygiene practices, aligning with UNICEF guidelines (UNICEF, 2009). Sleeping areas with kitchen and dining spaces cater to the needs of mothers and refugee children and also hint at the inclusiveness of CFSs as UNICEF recommended. The design allows for flexibility with movable interior partition walls, while colourful elements and wall paintings create an engaging environment. Outdoor handwashing facilities are provided for hygiene purposes as highlighted in the UNICEF’s guideline portrayed in figure 2B. Colourful indoor wall painting (Figure 3 G-I) with flexible space will ensure children’s free choice of playing and learning activities and also align with the research of (Barai, 2022). Grounded in principles of safety and inclusivity, outdoor play areas are tailored for different age groups, with shaded zones and diverse ground surfaces to encourage various activities and prevent accidents. These spaces not only promote play but also serve as platforms for children's creativity, showcasing their artwork and crafts by UNICEF standards (UNICEF, 2009).

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, the design of Child-Friendly Spaces (CFSs) in refugee camps should be rooted in a comprehensive understanding of children's needs and circumstances. The study identifies three major attributes indicating the resilience of CFSs amidst crises: the provision of spacious play areas, initiatives to reduce spatial crises, and prioritization of gender-specific zones. Recommendations include long-term planning, community empowerment, and children's involvement in CFS design, emphasizing the importance of quality-built environments for children's well-being and resilience. Through embracing participatory, inclusive, and culturally sensitive approaches, resilient CFSs can emerge as nurturing sanctuaries that promote the well-being and growth of refugee children in challenging environments. It is imperative to adopt participatory and inclusive methodologies, as advocated by Meyer et al. (2018), to tailor CFS designs to the unique requirements of refugee children, as noted by Akthar & Lovell (2019), Baidya et al. (2020), and Veronese et al. (2020). This approach allows designers to envisage CFSs through the lens of the built environment, ensuring that the physical surroundings are conducive to children's needs. However, it's important to acknowledge that the proposed model is hypothetical and should be adapted to specific cultural and climatic contexts during CFS implementation.


I would like to express my gratitude to the CPD and SiC organizations for their generous support through the CPD and SIC fellowships, spring, 2024. I am also thankful to Firat Demir and Zermarie Deacon, Co-Directors of CPD for critically evaluating this study. I am also extending gratitude to my advisor Suchishmitta Bhattacharjee, Associate Professor, Gibbs College of Architecture, University of Oklahoma for supporting this study.

Salma Akter is an SIC graduate student fellow. Salma's online profile can be found here:


1: Source: Guidelines for Child Friendly Spaces in Emergencies | Save the Children’s Resource Centre

2: United Nations Millennium Development Goals

3: Purdah | Veil, Seclusion & Gender Roles | Britannica


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Jun 24, 2024
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