12/18/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Let's Go Play: Helping Kids After Sandy Hook

Sometimes, Play-Doh is the best medicine.

Every day, Save the Children responds to children and families in need here in the United States and around the world, but we often get the most attention for our work in far-flung communities. In addition to our domestic and international development work, we provide support for children in crisis in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, West Africa -- any place where disaster strikes. I've joined emergency response teams all over the world to look after the urgent needs of children. We help kids recover and cope with trauma in some of the toughest environments, including war zones and refugee camps.

I never expected to be deploying to a crisis in my own backyard.

Yet on Sunday, I found myself sitting and painting a colorful picture with a young boy in Newtown, Conn. -- 20 miles north of Save the Children's headquarters -- as he started to talk, little by little, about the "big accident." I was at Save the Children's Child-Friendly Space, a place where children have a safe area to play and interact with other kids, which helps them deal with the uncertainty and stress they're experiencing. While their parents get counseling, we're working to help kids in the community feel a sense of normalcy and identify those children who may need some extra care.

Our Child-Friendly Space is filled with games, toys, puzzles and art materials. It's so important for kids to have a cheerful place to play and to socialize with other children, no matter what's happening outside. In the middle of the chaos, we help children find a sense of normalcy and encourage them to play, to giggle, to be silly, and to have fun -- so they can begin to heal.

Most recently, we operated Child-Friendly Spaces in shelters for victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. We had tea parties, played games and worked on arts and crafts projects to help children recover and express themselves in a safe, happy setting. This is exactly the kind of work we do with children all over the world who have experienced a traumatic event and crave the normal and comforting activity of playing with their peers. Whether it's from the horror of the Japanese tsunami, the uncertainty of an Ethiopian refugee camp or the unspeakable act of violence in Newtown last week, the most important thing is for kids to have someone who will listen carefully and the chance to just be kids again.

But when kids' needs are so different from our own, what can we do as adults to help them understand?

Along with millions of other parents across the country, I faced the daunting task of helping my child try to make sense of this senseless tragedy. On Friday after school, it was incredibly hard to explain to my 11 year-old how a group of young children could go to school in the morning and never come home again. She couldn't understand -- none of us can -- why anyone would want to harm little kids. And she kept asking me the question that I don't have a good answer for: why?

I referred to Save the Children's Top Ten Tips for Helping Children Cope with a Crisis -- a tool we have provided to parents and caregivers for many years, and one that I suddenly found myself in a position to use in my own home. I listened to her, reassured her that she was safe and turned off the news. I'll continue to do this in the coming days and weeks. And as we get ready for the holidays, I'm sure I'll give her and her older brothers an extra hug here and an extra kiss there, with the families of Newtown always in my thoughts.

But right now, my daughter has a holiday party and piano practice. So in between the hard questions and even harder answers, I tell her: come on, it's time to go play.