Given the overwhelming difficulties Japan faces as a result of the recent massive earthquake and tsunami, NAEYC spoke with Jeanne-Aimee DeMarrais, Save the Children’s Director of Domestic Emergency Response, to learn about the work Save the Children is doing in Japan. We also asked how we can best support Japan’s young children, their families, and the early childhood community in their profound time of need.
NAEYC: What are some ways that Save the Children considers the needs of children when responding to disasters?
Jeanne-Aimee DeMarrais: We immediately conduct an on-the-ground assessment of what has happened. What we see is that the needs of children (such as formula for infants) are usually not taken into consideration and that essentially children's specific needs may not be included in the disaster response plan. We see that children are at risk, often the youngest children.
NAEYC: What are some of the concrete recommendations you make to support young children?
Jeanne-Aimee DeMarrais: First, we recommend doing a needs assessment. We count the children to find out how many children there are and to determine their ages. When we know how many infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school-aged children, and teenagers are affected, we can better ensure that we can meet their needs.
For the very youngest children, the trauma of the event will interrupt breast-feeding. After a trauma a woman’s breast-feeding may be interrupted because of the environment or stress, so we set up a supportive environment so mothers can continue breast-feeding. For children who are not breast-fed, we make sure they have access to clean formula appropriate for their age.
It’s important to get children back to a regular schedule as soon as possible even when they are living in temporary shelter. It’s also important to establish a child-friendly space. Child-friendly spaces are safe, supported environments for children where children can play with other children and be children themselves. These are not schools but over time they do become informal school settings until regular school is reestablished. They are safe places, clear from debris. And they are staffed with supportive adults who can provide children with caring support and opportunities to interact and play with their peers.
Establishing emergency childcare is also a priority so parents can secure supplies or go back to the disaster area if possible to secure their homes without having to take infants and toddlers with them.
NAEYC: What kinds of materials do you bring in to create child-friendly spaces?
Jeanne-Aimee DeMarrais: We have kits with arts and crafts materials, sports materials, books, and a lot of creative play materials so children can express what they’ve seen and experienced through play. We know that even very young children, even infants and toddlers know that a traumatic event has taken place. They may not have the words to express what has happened but they can express it through play. It’s important for their well-being that we provide the space and materials so they can express themselves through play.
NAEYC: What can the early childhood community in the United States do to help?
Jeanne-Aimee DeMarrais: We’re still identifying the appropriate ways to help. Most child care in Japan is supported by the government and they have specifically asked us not to fly in any materials while they assess the situation. We recommend that people who want to help young children, families, and the early childhood community focus immediate assistance on child-focused responders like Save the Children and UNICEF. We’re still in the search and rescue phase so over the coming weeks as we know more about the impact and needs of the early childhood communities we will let you know about other concrete ways you can help.
One thing I do recommend is that early child care facilities in the United States review their own plans in case of a disaster. That’s one of the more important things you can do for your own community.
Resources on Coping with Disasters
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