08/05/2014 10:46 BST | Updated 07/07/2014 06:59 BST

Clowning Around - the Humanitarian Way

"I'm not ashamed to call it humanitarian clowning. It involves knowing how to make children laugh, even those who have been through a very traumatic experience. It's about making mistakes. It's about exciting spectacles," says Samantha.


Samantha Holdsworth brings a unique form of healing to children affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Photo credit: Plan International

"Clowns are not normal performers. When we're about to flop, we bypass the intelligence of an adult and enter into the stupidity of a clown."

For Samantha Holdsworth, 37, this is her mantra - and yes, she is a clown, a significant amount of the time. But Samantha, who hails from the UK, is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill circus clown. For her, it would be a travesty to even utter those words.

That's because Samantha is a self-proclaimed humanitarian clown who claims to bring a unique form of laughter and healing to disaster zones through her work as director of Clowns Without Borders UK.

"I'm not ashamed to call it humanitarian clowning. It involves knowing how to make children laugh, even those who have been through a very traumatic experience. It's about making mistakes. It's about exciting spectacles," says Samantha.

But there's also a serious side to it.

"The humanitarian component comes into play when you want to genuinely communicate with another human through laughter, regardless of the circumstances. For a humanitarian clown, it involves the ability to forget about getting the claps and the laughter and to look at the greater good."

With stripy socks and red nose packed, Samantha put her humanitarian clowning skills into practice when she recently travelled to Eastern Samar in the Philippines, an area badly affected by Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped across the country on November 8 last year.

Supported by children's charity Plan International, Samantha met up with four of her clown colleagues who had travelled from Mexico and the USA, but they weren't just there to perform. The global contingent of clowns were there to visit Plan's Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS), set up by the charity in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan to provide a safe area for children affected by the disaster.

There, the plan was to train 80 young people on creative clowning techniques with the hope they would use their newly acquired skills and share them with others, whether that be in child-friendly spaces or as mobile volunteers.

Together, they worked up a strategy, coupling clowning skills with child protection.

"Plan introduced us to its five-year emergency response for Typhoon Haiyan and together we came up with a way of incorporating the importance of safety as well as hygiene into our act," explains Samantha. "We also looked at ways how this experience for these young people could be a cathartic one, so we created a safe space to heal and then relay what they had learnt to others affected by the typhoon."

The need for a safe space was something the young people were able to identify with.

"I remember meeting a young woman who had lost her whole house," says Samantha. "Everything her family owned disappeared, so at first she had no where to stay or to go. Now, she is living with her next-door neighbour but there is no space. There has been no space since the typhoon."

When Samantha sat down to talk to her, the young girl revealed that her clown training had allowed her to be still and to connect with herself for the first time since the typhoon. It also provided an opportunity to let her know that it was alright to laugh.

"One of the things Clowns Without Borders believes in is providing a safe space which allows children to respond flexibly. So, although you might feel anger and fear, the clown's flexible approach provides a space for laughter," says Samantha.

To do this, Samantha and the others shared a few of their own unique games, such as zip zap boing and shampooing the dog, which involves movement and dance.

"Of course, we could have sat down and trained them, but the power of working through the body and finding opportunities to see each other laugh provides a hopefulness to allow them to move positively into the future," explains Samantha. "For example, a young girl called Anna Mai told me it was a long time since she had laughed and she was amazed at how quickly she was able to laugh during the workshop."

Perhaps obvious to some, laughter is key to a clown's work and it has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and stress. According to Samantha, it shows resistance to adversity, plus it strengthens the resilience process. Above all else, laughter has the power to transform a situation - much like one of the clown's powerful pieces of 'drama', says Samantha. She reveals the most popular segment of the show, usually met with a mix of shock and laughter.

"Kids are experts in having fun, so what anything we do has to be big. That's why at one point during our performance two of us turned into a giant monster. They audience were literally open-mouthed. Then another clown walked in on stilts. All the children started screaming, shouting and pointing," she laughs.

While the young people Plan supports might not be adopting the role of a giant monster (on stilts, no less) just yet, they are intent on taking their role seriously. In fact, 40 young people have already received a follow-up workshop on acrobatics, dance and comedy. Plus, they have had the chance to perform with the clowns as well as put on interactive, fun performances to help children deal with any distress they might be feeling.

As for the other group, they are set to become mobile CFS volunteers, combining their clowning skills with educating others about their rights and the effect a disaster can have on young people - and it's a concept Plan believes works.

According to Dr Unni Krishnan, Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response from Plan International, "Children affected by the typhoon have gone through a traumatic experience. This innovative approach, which blends fun with psychological and humanitarian support, can reach children and help them heal faster."

To find out more about Plan International's Typhoon Haiyan appeal, visit