By MIHOKO NAKAGAWA
TOKYO — The children’s eyes sparkled with excitement when the Japan Committee for UNICEF staff opened a box of early childhood development kits to reveal colorful toys and dolls at a shelter in earthquake-hit northeastern Japan.
The difference is remarkable. “These children had been hiding themselves from head to toe with a blanket since the earthquake hit us three weeks ago,” said one woman staying at the shelter. “But now they are out playing and looking so happy.”
The Japan Committee for UNICEF received the early childhood development and recreation kits from UNICEF’s warehouse in Copenhagen in order to set up and maintain child-friendly spaces at shelters, nurseries and kindergartens.
Since then, they have been providing safe, free and fun places for children who have had traumatic experiences during and after the earthquake. Many children have been separated from friends. Some have even lost one or both parents.
“This is exactly what the children needed,” said Ken Hayami, executive director of the Japan Committee for UNICEF. “I was convinced when I saw them playing with toys and drawing freely with crayons. UNICEF’s experience with children around the world is all packed in the kits.”
“The smile of these children motivates me to deliver more,” said Miwa Kurumisawa, one of the committee’s volunteers, who organizes child-friendly spaces every day at several shelters. Even local high school and university students, themselves affected by the earthquake, are helping run the spaces.
Child-friendly training for kindergarten teachers, nursery workers and parents is also being scaled up. “I felt relieved by sharing the difficult experience with peers,” says a teacher who participated in the training. “I am now empowered and determined to better respond to the needs of children.”
The general public is taking an active part through the Children’s Mini-library Project. More than 80,000 children’s books have already been donated and will be placed in child-friendly spaces in affected areas.
UNICEF’s global alliance partners are also playing important roles. Japan Airlines ensured fast delivery of kits and other items for children. Play mats donated by IKEA serve as symbol of child-friendly spaces. Children gather and wait for child-friendly activities to start when the mats are spread widely at the corner of the shelters.
While the child-friendly spaces initiative is moving forward and making steady progress on the ground, the Japan Committee for UNICEF is also working with local governments on a back-to-school program.
“Children should be able to enjoy their childhood and go to school,” said Hayami. “We are doing all we can here to realize the children’s rights.”
As April is the traditional starting time for a new school year, there will be many more needs as children anxiously wait for the opportunity to return to school.