By Diana Mardi
Play is an important component in the formation of children’s psychological development and improves their relationship with society and the environment. It gives them confidence in dealing with their peers and strengthens social bonds. Its relevance has been acknowledged in psychology, as it is used worldwide in the treatment of a range of mental illnesses in children, which confirms that play heals the child’s soul.
Bedouins live in harmony with nature, and Bedouin children’s relationship with nature and open areas defines their play. They are lucky when they are able to spend their time in nature rather than with consumer goods. So when this balance is disturbed, the children’s entire inner world is affected, which is reflected in the nature of their play, the types of games they choose, and the spaces they seek out.
In our visits with Bedouin women, I used to observe the children because as a mother, I wanted to understand their world. On the one hand, I am aware of the playgrounds that are available in Jewish Israeli communities, on the other, I bought my children’s toys with intention and awareness of the influence they have on their development. So seeing how Bedouin children play, while their parents have few or no resources to spend on them, has always sparked my curiosity.
Moreover, while research is available on Bedouin children’s educational situation, nobody really speaks about their interests and the spaces they occupy, including their play. Due to the expansion of areas designated for various uses according to the occupation authorities’ planning regime, including settlements, natural reserves, firing zones, military training areas, etc., the spaces available to Bedouin communities are shrinking. As a result, children’s spaces are shrinking as well, in some cases they no longer exist. In addition, they are threatened by settler violence, incursions by the Israeli military, housing demolition, and displacement.
Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Activities, Play and Culture) gives children the right to relax, play, and participate in a wide range of cultural, artistic, and other recreational activities.* Bedouin children’s right to play is violated when their safety cannot be guaranteed.
Bedouin children have a remarkable relationship with animals, and they will care for, feed, and play with the newborn ewes, camels, and dogs when their mothers leave and move with the shepherd for grazing. The children initially consider grazing an entertaining activity until it becomes a responsibility, generally borne by Bedouin boys – unless the area is safe, in which case, girls and women participate in this occupation. Through their playful participation, Bedouin children acquire the knowledge required to become experienced shepherds.
The types of games Bedouin children play are a product of their surroundings and frequently use materials that are readily available. For example, stones, grass, soil, sticks, and firewood are all part of their games. In general, Bedouin children do not own the toys that flood the markets, and parents do not overspend in buying manufactured or commercial toys. There is a beautiful phenomenon among the Bedouins that has a human, environmental, educational dimension: parents, during their wandering in grazing areas or in their going and coming from pastoral gatherings to cities or villages, collect games that have been abandoned. They are reused and their children play with them with a level of love and happiness that exceeds the happiness of the child who has received a toy in its box, wrapped in an attractive cover. Bedouin children tend to be humble in their dreams, playing with all their senses, using what nature has given them and what the earth has blessed us with.
In the Dgaiga community in the South Hebron Hills (Al-Ka’abna tribe), children have turned discarded wooden boxes into carts by adding wheels that are not even equal in size or shape. They take these vehicles up on a hill and stand in line to wait their turn to take a ride down. One after the other, they race downhill, discussing and agreeing among themselves on whose turn it will be to ride first and next. This game can last for many hours.
Children feel very lucky when they get hold of a ball, even if it is torn and deflated. They will play happily in the nearest open area.
In one of the communities of Khan al-Ahmar (Jahaleen tribe), we were busy talking during a meeting, when one Bedouin mother gave her toddler the covers of plastic bottles to keep him entertained. The child played quietly for hours with the multiple sizes and colors until he fell asleep. Items that we would not even consider can become valuable toys in the hands of creative mothers.
In a community east of Jaba, in the Khudayriyat area (Jahaleen and Ka’abna tribes), on a hot summer day, parents filled a huge plastic box that previously had been used for irrigation or to water livestock with water. The children entered it to swim, laughing loudly, as if they were visiting a luxurious swimming pool – exactly like the children in the pool in the nearby settlement of Sha’ar Benjamin (Giba Benjamin).
In the Arab Ramadin Community, Qalqilya District (Ramadin clan), in the sheg (guesthouse) of an urbanized Bedouin community that Israeli authorities have confined to an enclosed area behind the separation wall, the family’s grandfather has made a hammock. Here, the grandchildren often sit and rock. It is in a corner located behind and below the tent that serves as the sheg. The children also built houses that may stem from their imagination and dreams about the past or the future. They built walls using pieces of wood, grass, sand, stones, and broken tiles to form houses with walls and wooden ceilings. These houses have two floors: the ground floors are empty except for white stones that represent the sheep that are intended to be kept here, while the upper floor is for humans. While this design is far from the traditional Bedouin houses, it resembles the traditional homes in rural Palestine.
The lifestyle of these children differs greatly from the nomadism of their ancestors. Their parents do not depend on grazing and keep only a few heads of sheep that allow the grandfather to maintain his hobby and love for the past. These children own toys and electronic devices, unlike the Bedouins of the badia, but only very few.
In Wadi al-Siq Community, Ramallah District (Al-Ka’abna tribe), a father told me that his daughter runs to collect and protect her toys and dolls every time she sees an army jeep approach. This family has experienced the demolition of their home. The girl’s action emphasizes her priorities and need to play.
A game popular among children and youth lets them pile stones (in the desert) or containers on top of each other that then have to be taken down by stones thrown from afar. Other games are drawn in the sand, resembling the tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses) game played worldwide: siege is played according to elaborate rules in grids dug into the sand that are filled with stones, even sheep droppings. One such game is called shatterange al-Bedou (Bedouin’s chess).
Spatial obstacles and permanent persecution have in one way or another cut off Bedouin children as well as children living in Palestinian rural areas from free play in their natural surroundings. As Bedouin children observe what is happening around them, they become aware of the policy to which they must acquiesce. They thus form their relationship with the games they choose based on this awareness and understanding of the circumstances of the place and the obstacles that govern it. We must not accept the suffering that children experience when they are deprived of the happiness that play evokes. The right to play defines an important stage that allows children to develop and become active members of society. Its content is not merely an accessory that can be dispensed with. Children must be protected from abuse and all those who harm and obstruct the child’s development process. Every official, and especially institutions that deal with children’s rights, must look for appropriate solutions that suit the different environments in which children live, support their right to play, and allocate suitable places that allow them to play safely.
Article photos are courtesy of the author.
* Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, November 20, 1989, available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-rights-child; International Play Association, The Child’s Right to Play, available at http://ipaworld.org/childs-right-to-play/the-childs-right-to-play/.