Playtime in the Camps: An ESRC Better Lives Essay

“Writing about research in non-academic and informal language that appeals to the general public is an important skill for all researchers to develop,” says Jennifer Rubin, the executive chair of Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council. Rubin makes that observation in the introduction to this year’s ESRC Writing Competition, in which PhD students who have received money from the ESRC write short essays about how their research leads too better lives.

A dozen essays were shortlisted for the final prize in the competition, which has been held twice before and will be held annually in the future. Of those twelve, two essayists were named winners and each received a £1,000 cash prize. Awards were announced April 4 at the British Academy.

A panel of four judges chose the winners. That panel included Miranda Nunhofer, vice president for editorial journals for SAGE Publishing, which partner with the ESRC in the competition (and which is also the parent of Social Science Space). Other panelists were former chair of the Campaign for Social Science Shamit Saggar, now director of the new Public Policy Institute at the University of Western Australia; Hannah Devlin, science correspondent for the Guardian; and Melinda Mills, head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford. Over the next six weeks Social Science Space will post the shortlisted and winning essays.

Today we open the series with Bobby Beaumont, a PhD research at the University of Birmingham, and his essay titledPlaytime in the camps.” Beaumont, whose research focuses on how circus, play and arts-based interventions play out in refugee camps and temporary settlements. He is also programme executive for enterprise with The Prince’s Trust.

Playtime in the camps

You glance at yourself in the security checkpoint window and smile. You like your costume; black and white stripy trousers, a freshly ironed white shirt, colourful neck scarf and cummerbund, odd stripy socks, black shoes and a bowler hat. You and your five clown colleagues are waiting for the military official to finish copying your names from your passports.

Bobby Beaumont

You are used to the process, yet you always feel the same sense of unease wherever you are. Today, outside a camp in Europe on the outskirts of a city; but the checkpoint, the military uniforms, the armed officers, the high fences, the barbed wire, the security cameras and humanitarian branding are constant artefacts that follow the refugee and forcibly displaced human around the world, wherever they might be. Your unease comes from these artefacts as they are assembled together to create the refugee camp – apparently the best humanity can come up with when faced with people fleeing war or famine or natural disaster or poverty.

You take such thoughts, your unease and anger at the way of things, and store them away ready to draw upon as fuel for the work to come. Then you smile a gigantic smile as you shake the hand of the military officer and thank him for his diligence before jumping back in your van and heading up the dusty track that leads to the camp.

As you approach you pull yourself out of the window of the van. One hand clinging to the roof rack, one foot placed on the open window, your other limbs stretched out into the air and you begin to shout greetings at the top of your lungs. The other clowns join in the chorus of shouting and singing from the slow-moving vehicle, the driver beeps the horn relentlessly and within seconds the desired effect begins to take shape.

Children appear from all sides. Smiling and shouting, pointing and waving. You jump down from the vehicle and beckon the children towards you, greeting each one with a smile, a high five, a fist bump, an ‘Oh yeah!’ In this moment you see children full of energy ready to play games, sing songs, juggle, spin plates and hula hoop.

Are these the faces of the undesirable refugees we are taught to fear and leave to die in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea? Are these the faces of the ‘swarms’ of migrants ‘invading’ Europe’s shores? If they are, you do not see it yourself.

Within seconds the other clowns have joined you and the gathering children. One holds a drum and beats an infectious rhythm, another begins to chant. The children copy, chanting and singing and dancing to the drum. You begin to move, leading a procession of clowns and children, weaving through the rows of tents and containers in which the community live. You continue to chant and sing, and the children continue to copy.

You ask for more noise, more movement, more energy. Children come running from every door, a smiling mother hands you a baby from out of a window, two men appear with more drums to add to the assembling bodies. The noise is insatiable, the noise is addictive, the noise is play manifest.

You and over one hundred children, clowns and adults gather in a clearing and form a massive circle. The children understand the circle. It is ritualised, a place to play and be safe. The barbed wire, the high fences and military personnel fade to nothing once the circle is assembled. The play circle is a symbol of unity and alliance, it is democratic, it cannot exist without each one of its members, each one holding it together and adding to its power. It cuts through the fabric of the camp – no longer a place to contain and forget about people who do not fit into our world obsessed with borders and boundaries, instead a place and a space owned by children and their right to play.

Article 31 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to engage in play. However, there are places and spaces in this world where the right to play is stripped from children; refugee camps can be one such place. My research begins with a very simple question: How can play make lives better? To answer this question, I follow, research and perform with The Flying Seagull Project, a circus and play charity valuing the psychological wellbeing of a child as equal to a child’s physical needs. Play has the power to begin to heal the wounds of war, it provides the means to begin the long journey of tackling trauma and is a battle cry against a world that forgets so many of its children.

Shortlisted and winning essays in the series:

  • Playtime in the camps | Bobby Beaumont, University of Birmingham
  • Working relationships | Rosa Daiger von Gleichen, University of Oxford
  • Parenting with mental health | Abby Dunn, University of Sussex
  • Reliving trauma, relieving pain | Alessandro Massazza, University College London
  • The psychology of flooding | Niall McLoughlin, University of Bath
  • Becoming a diagnosis | Lauren O’Connell, University of Essex
  • The illusion of eternal independence | Chloë Place, University of Sussex
  • Tilting at windmills in a climate-changed world | Celia Robbins, University of Exeter



  • Notes on a G-string | Rosie Cowan, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Better lives with better toilets | Ian Ross, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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