Play Hubs in Slovakia are responding to the needs of Ukrainian refugee children

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, at least twelve million people have been forced to flee their homes. According to the BBC, seven million people are thought to be displaced inside Ukraine, while more than five million have left for neighbouring countries — primarily Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

More than half of the refugees from the war in Ukraine are children. While some have been able to resume their Ukrainian school curriculum online, for others — especially young children and those from vulnerable groups, such as Roma; children with disabilities; children in institutions; and unaccompanied minors — alternative arrangements have been and must continue to be made to ensure that their education continues. In Slovakia, six new Play Hubs are providing safe and welcoming spaces for Ukrainian children to continue learning and playing. 

Škola Dokorán opens six new Play Hubs in Slovakia 

Since February 2022, nearly 80,000 refugees from Ukraine have registered for temporary protection in Slovakia, with thousands more transiting through en route to other countries in Western Europe. ISSA Member, Škola Dokorán – Wide Open School n.o, the national coordinator of the TOY for Inclusion programme in Slovakia has been extremely agile in responding to the needs of these refugees. 

In June, Škola Dokorán opened new Play Hubs in six parts of Slovakia: Tatranská Lomnica, Spišská Nová Ves, Prešov, Košice, Poprad and Žilina — with financial support from UNICEF, and technical support from International Child Development Initiatives (ICDI) and the International Step by Step Association (ISSA). These locations were chosen for maximum impact, being areas with large numbers of Ukrainian refugees. Three of the Play Hubs have been set up in primary schools, while the other three are in refugee camps. 

Community-based, inclusive, and non-formal educational spaces  

Since opening in June, the new Play Hubs have been instrumental in providing safe and welcoming spaces for Ukrainian children and families. As community-based, inclusive and non-formal educational spaces, the Play Hubs offer opportunities for socialization and integration for both refugee parents and children — helping them to socialise and make new friends; process their experiences and emotions; learn the local language; get to know their new community; and acquire access to healthcare, education, and social services. 

For children especially, the Play Hubs offer meaningful activities and interaction with others in child-friendly spaces. This can help to reduce stress, contribute to a sense of belonging, and help to re-establish routine for families that have suffered forced displacement. Alongside caring for children, the Play Hubs also contribute to the well-being of their parents and caregivers by guiding them as they adjust to life in a new country, connecting them with services and information, and helping them to establish social support networks. 

Since the Play hubs opened in June, they have already welcomed more than 3,000 children and families. 

TOY for Inclusion kicks off in Lelystad

On April 11th, TOY for Inclusion kicked off in Lelystad. A TOY For Inclusion Play Hub aims to open its doors in May 2022. This is the second location for a Play Hub in the Netherlands, after Enschede in 2020.

Fifteen people attended the kick-off meeting and the first Local Action Team training in Lelystad, including five members from the Local Action Team of Enschede.

The Lelystad location will include:

  • a children’s health care centre,
  • preschool and primary school,
  • the Diaconal Ministry and its debt counselling and community centre, and
  • the LimonadeBrigade (multi-agency cooperation of services for young children and families).

The Local Action Team will include a Roma mediator and Play Hub assistant, as well as other social partners, including youth and community workers.

The kick-off meeting took place in the Salvation Army’s community centre “Believing in the neighbourhood” where the Play Hub will be located. The Local Action Team coordinator from Slovakia, Peter Strazik, took part in the meeting via Teams. He shared experiences from the two TOY Play Hubs in in Slovakia.

In Lelystad, with the Play Hub activities, the Salvation Army will focus on families and children from 0 to 4 (preschool age). The aim is to offer non-formal education activities in an inclusive and intercultural environment. Through Play Hub activities, they hope to improve the transition experience of Roma children into (pre)schools. By smoothing these transitions, the hope is to discourage Roma children from dropping out later in their schooling.

With around 300 Roma, Lelystad – like Enschede – is among the municipalities in the Netherlands with the highest Roma population. Though in the past several years, almost all Roma children attend school from the age of 4, children dropping out of secondary school remains a big problem. Many of their families are dealing with additional social issues, and the unemployment rate is high among Roma.

TOY for Inclusion, promotes inter-sectoral cooperation between early childhood and social health services and Roma communities to build trust between families and services. The Salvation Army, and other partners in TOY for Inclusion, aim to use the project’s approach to include more children in early childhood activities and contribute to better prospects for their futures. 

TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs benefit thousands in 2021

The TOY for Inclusion consortium has released the project’s Monitoring and Evaluation report. This report evaluates the impact of TOY for Inclusion’s Play Hubs from February to December 2021 and highlights the successes of this innovative approach and challenges that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monitoring and Evaluation Report highlights successes in 2021 

Despite the continuing presence of COVID-19 restrictions in 2021, the Play Hubs demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability in striving to increase social contact for children and their families. Except for the Slovenian Play Hubs, which were closed due to restrictions, all Play Hubs continued operating and providing services to their local communities. In addition, four new Play Hubs opened — two in Croatia and two in Slovakia.

Over the year, the 17 active Play Hubs organized 390 activities. The Play Hubs saw a significant increase in the number of in-person activities compared with the previous monitoring period between March 2020 and January 2021. Almost 70% of these took place face-to-face. Other methods used to connect with children and families include social media networks and telephone services.

TOY for Inclusion continues to bring communities together

Between February and December of 2021, 4,536 people participated in activities organized by the Play Hubs. The majority of these individuals were children, but this total also includes adults and practitioners. Of the participants, 57% were from vulnerable groups (namely Roma, but there were also migrants and refugees). 

Interestingly, the data gathered by TOY for Inclusion partner organizations shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Play Hubs also provided vital services and social interaction for older children and teenagers. The range of age groups engaged in such services is a testament to the adaptability and flexibility of the Toy for Inclusion approach.

Challenges in a pandemic environment 

The main challenges experienced by TOY for Inclusion and the Play Hubs in 2021 were related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, COVID-19 restrictions inhibited the activities of Play Hubs across Europe, while in Slovenia, the restrictions meant that for the entire reported period, the Play Hubs were not able to operate at all. Across the board, partners reported that isolation and loneliness had a negative impact on children and families.

For some Roma families, vaccine hesitancy and thus the lack of a vaccine certificate meant that they could not access services, including the Play Hubs. In Latvia, vaccine hesitancy also resulted in a critical loss of Roma Play Hub assistants who chose not to get vaccinated. Four other countries also reported a shortage of staff as their primary challenge. Work will be ongoing to encourage vaccinations in several Play Hub communities and train new staff to fill vacated positions.

Overall, the report shows how, TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs continue to make services easier to reach by promoting inter-sectoral work, flexible solutions, and contextualized responses to young children and their families’ specific needs. Even amid difficult COVID-19 lockdowns, the Play Hubs provided a safe, stimulating environment for children and families. Read the complete Monitoring and Evaluation report.

For specific questions regarding the TOY for Inclusion project, please access the links below.

  • Hear the perspectives of those involved in the project (children, Local Action Teams, municipalities, here.

Play Hubs connect with families at busy squares in Rome

As part of their work to fight educational poverty and create growth opportunities from a young age, Associazione 21 Luglio formed two Play Hubs in the suburb of Tor Bella Monaca in Rome for children aged zero to three years and their families.

While one of the Play Hubs sits inside the former headquarters of Associazione 21 Luglio, the other is a mobile trolley. In July 2021, the mobile Play Hub began traveling around the neighborhood for the first time. It was positioned on the Piazza Castano square for two days. A long list of games and activities took place in the afternoon when the square typically fills with children and parents. The community welcomed the mobile Play Hub and its Toy Library with great interest and curiosity.

Meeting the needs of families in Tor Bella Monaca

During visits from the mobile trolley, the Play Hub team followed a tailored program. At first, children explored and interacted independently with the educational and play equipment; then, they held a structured workshop with animated storytelling. Participants joined from the area adjacent to the square and other parts of the neighborhood. It proved an opportunity for children and parents to make new acquaintances in their community. Parents also especially enjoyed the chance to participate in fun activities with their children.

Starting in September 2021, the mobile Play Hub and its Toy Library began traveling on a regular schedule. Every week, for two days, from 9:00 to 13:00, the trolley now visits these the most important squares in Tor Bella Monaca. And, after only a few months, the mobile Play Hub team has encountered many children aged zero to three who, for different reasons, do not attend a nursery. Meanwhile, the turnout for the mobile Play Hub was large, especially when it travels to the Piazza Castano square, which is situated in a very densely inhabited area.

Noting this gap, the team began an observation period to collect information about parents’ needs, wishes, and expectations. This data helped inform the planning of educational and recreational activities specifically designed for children aged zero to three. The new program includes activities to develop fine motor skills, psychomotor exercises, experiential activities, and sensory workshops.

At the same time, the team took steps to integrate some formal educational services for children three years and older who are not enrolled in education services. This work is particularly benefiting the children attending the permanent Play Hub in the Associazione 21 Luglio headquarters. The integration of more formal services has proven to be an opportunity. While formal services are not always well-perceived, children and their parents or caregivers now know the Play Hubs and consider them safe and welcoming.

Fostering community connection

At Play Hubs, children have the opportunity to interact, play and spend quality time with other children and adults at a critical period in their lives. Parents and caregivers receive a similar benefit. They get to know other parents and share experiences. Parents are also able to rely on Play Hub staff for advice. For families, borrowing games, toys, and books fosters a sense of responsibility for their community. Through these various interactions, the Play Hubs and Toy Libraries help children and families feel more connected – right where they were already spending time, in the busy squares of Tor Bella Monaca in Rome.

Read more about TOY for Inclusion.

European Commission’s ECEC Working Group Toolkit features TOY for Inclusion

After two years of work, the European Commission’s Early Childhood Education and Care Working Group is organizing an online launch event Early Childhood Education and Care in Europe: a focus on inclusion and staff professionalization on 3 March 2021. During the launch, two important reports for the field will be introduced:

– the Toolkit for inclusive early childhood education and care and

– the Report on how to recruit, train and motivate well-qualified ECEC staff.

Both reports intend to provide guidance to countries in addressing the most pressing issues related to ECEC staff and inclusive ECEC services, under the broader framework and operationalizing the European Quality Framework on Early Childhood Education and Care. Many country examples, good practices, and successful initiatives. Notably, the TOY for Inclusion project is featured as a good practice in the Toolkit for inclusive early childhood education and care. Find it in the section “Working with families”, page 92.

These reports aim to create a better bridge between practice and policy, between governmental and non-governmental efforts and expertise.

During the event, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel will be joined by:

  • João Costa, Portuguese Secretary of State of Education
  • Roderic O’Gorman, Irish Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth

The event will be held in English. The detailed program can be found here.

How do you join the event?

When: Wednesday, March 3, 2021 – 13:30-15:30 CET

Where: You can watch the event here. You can also follow the event at Erasmus+ on Facebook or on Erasmus+ on Twitter.

Note, no prior registration is required to watch the live stream.

TOY for Inclusion Conversations: Play Hub Coordinators from Hungary

As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers and activities continue to occur in online spaces, TOY for Inclusion is taking advantage of this movement online to showcase some of the most influential and crucial voices of the TOY for Inclusion project.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve shared updates on the work of partners involved in the project. We’ve also highlighted insights from municipalities about the TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs’ unparalleled importance in communities.

Now, we’re handing the microphone to those who are working in the Play Hubs. Listen to hear what Teri, Piri and Bea, Local Action Team (LAT) Coordinators in Hungary, want you to know about their work.

Meet the interviewees

Name: Kanalas Terez (Teri)
Years working as LAT coordinator: 3

Name: Lakatos Richardne Piroska (Piri)
Years working as LAT coordinator: 3

Name: Szabo Beata (Bea)
Years working as LAT coordinator: 1

Q: What do you think makes the TOY for Inclusion approach unique or different from other initiatives for young children and their families?

Teri: From the very start, creating a welcoming atmosphere in the Play Hub was very important. It is a safe place for the families, not only because they have access to toys but also because they are loved and cared for. That is why it is different. 

Bea: The main difference is that most programs target children, but the Play Hubs are for the whole family; the parents, the grandparents, and the relatives. Adults can talk to each other as well, so this is for building community. Another aspect is that we target families with very different backgrounds from the community, and a group of local professionals support its operation.  

Q: We know that one of the most important features of the TOY for Inclusion approach is the flexibility, can you explain how your Play Hub adapted during the pandemic?

Piri: During the pandemic, we all are restricted; rules regulate our work, but we did not want to limit our relationship with the families, so we turned to the online space. We invited the families to contribute by reading poems, telling tales, and discussing how they spend their days in the new situation.

Bea: Following the national restrictions and rules, we changed to an online operation as well. We had a continuous dialogue with the Nagydobos Play Hub to share ideas between the local families and the professionals. Our idea was to find ways to help the families to cope with this new situation. We asked the local pediatrician (who is a member of the Local Action Team) to talk about the pandemic from a health perspective. A psychologist also guided us on dealing with distancing, and a teacher helped the children and parents do schooling from home. A special educator advised the parents if they should ask their kids to continue the school tasks during the summer or not. 

I want to highlight two community events. We held an online May Day event, which was a one-day program for the local families. In cooperation with the local professionals, we created short creative videos to entertain and activate the families for the whole day. The other was the online Advent Tale Calendar. Each day during Advent, a parent, a child, a local professional, a member of the local coordination team, or a colleague from Partners Hungary recorded a tale. We posted them on the Play Hub Facebook page. 

It has been challenging as, after six months of regular operation, we had to close down again, but it seems that the community remained together and followed us. One of our videos reached 30,000 people. 

Q: Can you tell us about one reaction, feedback or comment from a family or child attending your Play Hub that had an impact on you personally, or that ‘touched your heart’? 

Bea: There is a very shy young boy, and after the third visit, he held my hand at a carnival in the garden. I like it so much when I walk down the street and children greet me, asking when the next time they come to Play Hub will be. I heard a story from my colleague about a little boy who enjoyed playing with a toy, and he liked it so much that he asked for the same for his birthday.

Another meaningful memory for me was a therapy workshop where children talked about their fears, and the parents also had good discussions with a psychologist. For me, that was a little miracle event. 

Teri: It happened at the very beginning, a grandmother came to the Play Hub with her grandson for the first time. The little boy looked into the Play Hub, turned to his grandma, and said: “Let’s go home; I’d like to change and put on my nice clothes to come here.” It was so memorable for me that I will never forget. 

Q: What are two things you want policy makers to know about TOY for Inclusion?

Piri: In Nagydobos, the most important thing is that there is a place where families with different backgrounds can come together. They can talk and discuss things. Mothers are also able to exchange experiences, so there is a shared space. Mothers can learn how to play with their children here. There is always some housework to do if they are at home, cleaning, cooking, and there is no time to play with their children. Here it is possible: playing obliviously together.

Bea: I can connect to what Piri has said. This program builds community. Something was missing here in Csobanka. Families did not have much to do or a place where children could go after school to play for half an hour. Besides, it strengthens the community. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge that the local professionals hold about the families, and previously there was no forum to get together and share. 

Q: Can you share in a few words what makes you proud to be a Local Action Team coordinator/Play Hub Assistant? 

Teri: What I’m very proud of is that we can keep up the quality of our work.

Bea: The LAT became a professional forum here. We can count on each other, which was proven by the big online events that I have already mentioned, the online May Day and Advent Tale series. I think the Play Hub now has prestige, and it has spread in the neighboring villages that Csobanka has a Play Hub. 

Piri:  I’m the proudest that the Play Hub is three years old here, and we can count on the local professionals; at any community event, they come to volunteer. 

Whatever our problem is, whatever we would like to organize, we can turn to them. And what is even more important is that we have built and kept the trust of the families, the local professionals, and directors of the local institutions. 

Piri, Teri, Bea, thank you for sharing your perspective.

Watch the interview in Hungarian.

TOY for Inclusion shares Impact Evaluation and Policy Recommendations

The TOY for Inclusion consortium has released the project’s Impact Evaluation and Policy Recommendations.

Using a qualitative methodology for data collection and analysis, this report evaluates the impact of the TOY to Share, Play to Care project (a project which built on the work of TOY for Inclusion).

The Executive Summary of the TOY to Share, Play to Care: Impact Evaluation and Policy Recommendations report shares key findings taken from the full report authored by Mathias Urban, Gillian Lake, Geraldine French, Fiona Giblin, and Thérèse Farrell of the Early Childhood Research Centre at Dublin City University.

You can access the Executive Summary here.