11/15/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Kids Need to Play

On the storm-ravaged East Coast, all people want is for things to return to "normal." What does "normal" mean? Adults who remain displaced from their homes no doubt crave the comfort of their own beds, a running refrigerator and a hot shower. But for kids, "normal" might be as simple as a chance to play.

We must meet our children's basic needs -- food, shelter, water -- but it's not enough. For a child whose life has been turned upside-down, play is absolutely essential for maintaining a sense of stability amidst turmoil and helping them to work through emotional trauma.

It's easy to push play down the priority list, but luckily child-serving organizations around the world understand its healing power. In New Jersey and New York, the international nonprofit Save the Children has set up safe play areas in shelters "where hundreds of children can be kids again." After the 2011 tsunami earthquake in Japan, World Vision created child-friendly play spaces because they considered "emotional support to be just as critical as physical assistance for vulnerable children who have experienced disasters." And when it came to aiding the children affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Clinton Global Initiative found that play was "one of the best medicines."

The national nonprofit I founded, KaBOOM!, is on a mission to save play for America's children, and has long been championing the cause in high-need communities. Of course, all kids need to play -- and sadly, kids both rich and poor aren't getting enough of it -- but play is particularly vital for vulnerable children living in less stable environments. Not only does play make kids more resilient, but kids who don't play are at greater risk of falling behind academically, becoming overweight or obese, failing to integrate socially and even engaging in criminal activity.

When kids have endured trauma, play only becomes that much more vital. That's why we built 137 playgrounds in the Gulf following Hurricane Katrina. At one of these sites -- a school in Kiln, Miss -- the principal reported:

The psychologists in our area have been doing studies on kids in the schools in our district, and they reported seeing things... like thoughts about suicide, murder and other types of violence -- truly terrible things. But, they also reported that they didn't see those things in the kids at North Central Elementary and they attribute a lot of that to the playground.

If you're a parent trying to rebuild your life after the hurricane, don't forget to let you children play. Whether they construct a fort, start a game of charades by candlelight or run around a school gym, kids don't need a whole lot to get started. They just need some kids or adults to play with, and the time and space to do it.

As the work continues to restore power to families across the eastern United States, let's also ensure that kids benefit from the power of play.

Is there a playground in your community that was damaged by the storm? Please add a photo to our Map of Play. Your input will help us focus our longer-term rebuilding efforts.