Refugee children’s play: Before and after migration to Australia

Author(s): Kelli K. MACMILLAN ; Jeneva OHAN ; Sarah CHERIAN ; Raewyn C. MUTCH



Play is vital to children’s development, health and resilience. Play modulates cognitive, emotional and social well-being. Children constitute approximately half of all humanitarian refugee entrants resettled in Australia. Refugee children are commonly victims and witnesses of war and persecution, living across resource-poor environs during transit. Little is known about the effects of refugee migration on play. This study explores how refugee children engaged in play pre-migration (in their home country) and post-migration (Australia).


Refugee children attending the Refugee Health Clinic of a tertiary children’s hospital were invited to complete a qualitative descriptive study of play. The children were asked to draw how they played pre- and post-migration. Drawings were analysed for (i) the presence of play; (ii) location of play; and (iii) drawing detail.


Nineteen refugee children were recruited (mean age 8.5 years ± standard deviation 6.4 months). Significantly fewer children drew play pre- versus post-migration (11/19, 58% vs. 18/19, 95% P < 0.03). Girls had greater comparative changes in play with migration (pre: 2/8, 25% vs. post: 7/8, 87%, P = 0.06), trending to significance. Of those children who drew play, almost all drew playing outside (pre-migration: 10/11, 90.9%; post-migration: 17/18, 94.4%). Drawings showed equivalent detail pre- and post-migration.


Resettled refugee children, especially girls, demonstrated limited play pre-migration, with higher levels of engagement post-resettlement. Facilitating opportunities for variety of play may strengthen positive resettlement outcomes for children and parents. Larger longitudinal studies examining play in refugee children and associations with physical, development and psychological well-being are warranted.

Tags: Children’s play, children, well-being, refugees, Australia

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