When a pillowcase becomes a grab bag: preparing children for natural disasters

Our teaching resources help youngsters learn about weather emergencies and what they should do to stay safe


Last updated 19 April 2023

The world is reeling from a series of devastating natural disasters. From Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in South Asia, to Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We can’t avoid natural disasters, but through the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement we can help people prepare for them – such as by teaching people to have a grab bag ready.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the American Red Cross noticed children using their pillowcases to carry their possessions to the rest centres. Cue the Pillowcase Project: now even UK children are getting ready to face the worst with their pillowcase ‘grab bags’.

Preparing for the future

On average, natural disasters affect around 250 million people every year worldwide. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) more than half of those affected have been children.

The Pillowcase Project helps children learn about weather emergencies in their local area, and how they can prepare and stay safe. Initiated by the American Red Cross, the project is now run by six other National Societies, including the British Red Cross.

While the UK may be safer than most from earthquakes and hurricanes, it does get its fair share of extreme weather events.

Take Storm Desmond during the winter of 2015-2016, which flooded parts of Cumbria, Lancashire and the Scottish Borders. Or the heatwave in June which brought the hottest day for 40 years.

No one can predict what’s around the corner but when the unexpected happens it pays to be prepared.

The pillowcase project in action

The Pillowcase Project is delivered through schools by teachers who download our free online resource toolkit.

There are all sorts of tools to teach pupils about the emergencies that might affect them – covering flooding, thunderstorms, severe winter weather and heatwaves – as well as key skills to help them cope and respond safely if an emergency happens.

Pupils also get to decorate an emergency ‘grab bag’ pillowcase with the items they would want to have with them in an emergency. They can then take this home and share what they’ve learnt with their family and friends.

Since launching in the UK in 2015, around 19,000 children aged 7-11 in over 250 schools across the country, have taken part in the Pillowcase Project.

Red Cross teaching resource

The Red Cross provides free online teaching resources for children and young people aged 5- 19 to help them prepare for, respond to and recover from a crisis. These are closely linked to the curriculum.

Our resources focus on five themes that are all related to our humanitarian work: humanitarianism and the Red Cross; disasters and emergencies; first aid and the bystander effect; refugees and migration; and conflict and its consequences. The Pillowcase Project covers disasters and emergencies.

If you’re a teacher or youth leader, check out our other online teaching resources today.

Emergencies in the UK

We respond to an emergency in the UK every four hours. People are at the heart of what we do. If you’re inspired by what you’re reading on Stories, please consider donating to make sure we’re ready to spring into action.