Smoke rises over Gaza after an Israeli air force bombing July 9. / Lior Mizrahi, Getty Images
SDEROT, Israel â?? Since the start of summer vacation, Noa Lifshitz, 8, has been attending camp at her elementary school, one of the few buildings in this town on the Gaza border that can withstand rocket fire and is large enough to accommodate 200 children.
Noa and her classmates are restless. They're unable to play outside because of the barrage of rockets launched at Sderot from Gaza. They're stuck in the same building where Noa spent the whole school year in class.
Eager to give her campers a day out, school Principal Etti Azran organized a visit to Israel's only indoor play center with built-in bomb shelters.
"This place is a godsend," Azran said Thursday as a loud "thump" could be heard above the children's voices. It was the sound of Israel's "Iron Dome" anti-rocket system destroying a rocket in midair. There were several thumps Thursday morning. Rockets not intercepted by the Iron Dome make a boom.
"Virtually every child in the town is traumatized. How could they not be?" said Azran, who has lived in this city of 24,000 her entire life.
The spacious play center, housed in a converted textile factory, includes a basketball and a volleyball court, a soccer field, a jungle gym, a TV and movie area and a climbing wall. Younger children have many areas to enjoy soft climbing blocks, toy kitchens or just quiet play. There is a room for events such as birthday parties. It's "the only place where, at times like this, children can gather outside a school," said Shmuel Ohayon, the facility's manager.
Every play area is within 15 seconds of one of the five large bomb shelters in the building â?? the time it takes a rocket launched from Gaza to land in Sderot.
"We wanted to put in a merry-go-round but realized that it takes more than 15 seconds to stop it. It's the same reason this is the world's shortest climbing wall," said Yedidya Harush, a representative of the Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental agency that built the play center in 2009 with donations from American Jews and Christians.
Since 2003, militants in Gaza have launched more than 10,000 rockets at Sderot and nearby Israeli towns, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Dozens of rockets have been launched at this town during the past two weeks, but most have been destroyed by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
The play center, where the entry cost is about $3 when the security situation is calm and half that during times such as these, is open year-round. Many children come to its psychological counseling center for treatment.
A study by the nearby Sapir Academic College found that 75% of Sderot's residents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Daniel Brom, founding director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, said his organization introduced an early-childhood intervention center in the town several years ago.
"Our research found that if the parents are coping well, the children cope well," Brom said. When the rockets are raining down, "the children become clingy, they have trouble sleeping." Older children, Brom said, are often afraid to stay at home alone.
The children at the play center Thursday appeared happy-go-lucky until an air raid siren sounded. "Hurry, run into the shelter," Azran urged, staying in the open area until the youngsters had gone into a shelter.
There they joined several dozen campers being entertained by a clown. Colorful balloons hung from the ceiling of the bright and cozy shelter.
Daniel Gurevitch, 11, says the sirens and rockets don't phase him.
"I'm used to it," he says with a shrug.
"Outside isn't safe," Noa says. "That's why I like to come here."
Read the original story: Playing it safe indoors -- and close to bomb shelters