Four Years Later: Reflections on the TOY for Inclusion Project

This month, the TOY for Inclusion project titled TOY to Share, Play to Care, co-funded by the European Commission and the Open Society Foundations, will come to a close. This project built and expanded on prior work, which introduced the TOY for Inclusion approach. 

TOY for Inclusion moves away from the belief that some children and families are harder to reach. Instead, it aims to make services easier to reach by promoting inter-sectoral work, flexible solutions, and contextualized responses to young children and their families’ specific needs. 

Throughout these four years of work, partners have created an exceptional approach that is well-received by communities and can adapt during crisis periods and to different contexts. 

Francesca Colombo (ISSA) and Giulia Cortellesi (ICDI) reflect on the project’s work, its sustainability, and its impact.  

Listen to this interview or read the transcript below

Francesca: I am Francesca Colombo, senior program officer at International Step by Step Association. I am here today with Giulia Cortellesi, senior program manager at ICDI, International child development initiative, and coordinator of the TOY for Inclusion project. Welcome, Giulia! I will ask you a few questions about the TOY for Inclusion approach, its impact, and scalability. 

Giulia: Hi Francesca, thanks for inviting me to do this interview. 

Francesca: When did the TOY for Inclusion project begin, why was it envisaged, and for whom? 

Giulia: TOY for Inclusion began in 2017, so four years ago, and the idea was to create spaces that would bring Roma and non-Roma children closer, so in places where there is segregation. And this is why we decided to build the early childhood Play Hubs in 8 European countries, which are spaces where young children and their families can come, play, borrow toys and participate in activities. Since 2017, the idea has changed and evolved based on its success with the first initial target group. We started to explore opportunities to make Play Hubs non-formal education spaces for all children, of course with a special eye to vulnerable ones of all backgrounds

Francesca: Thank you Giulia, we know that the approach’s flexibility is essential to TOY for Inclusion’s success. Can you share some examples of how this flexibility was key during lockdowns due to COVID-19?

Giulia: Yes, sure. Actually, the COVID-19 for TOY for Inclusion turned out to be more an opportunity than a challenge. This is because of the TOY for Inclusion approach’s flexibility and because every Play Hub is managed by the Local Action Team composed of representatives of relevant local institutions and organizations. Every Play Hub looks different based on the context where it operates, so it was really easy to adapt our activities to the new conditions of the lockdown and pandemic. For example, in many cases, the Play Hubs and their staff offered psycho-social support to children and families using remote calls over the telephone, which was something that formal services were not able to offer.This was a great support for the families who were experiencing stress and frustration during this period.

Another example is the help given to children who did not have access to tablets and computers to follow and attend online education. So, thanks to the Play Hubs and their flexibility, we made a lot of computers and tablets available for those children and even set-up community laptops in the Roma settlements so that children could go there, do their homework, or at least print the homework and bring them home. We also organize homework support remotely. And in Italy, for example, there was a nice initiative to create a mobile Play Hub. It was not possible to organize the regular sessions in the Play Hub. Thanks to this mobile Play Hub, which is a van that contains a lot of toys and educational materials, it was possible to set-up a Play Hub outdoors and organize activities. All this while still following the rules and the restrictions of the lockdowns. The mobile Play Hub even attracted new beneficiaries and age groups during these challenging times.  

Q: That’s amazing, Giulia. Can you tell us some key challenges and opportunities presented throughout the TOY for Inclusion journey?

A: Yes, sure. A challenge from the very beginning was finding a balance between attracting children and families from the mainstream community and the more vulnerable families from the minority communities. In some cases and some locations, the Play Hub was visited mainly by children and families from the Roma community. It was hard to attract children and families from the non-Roma community. In some other places, this was the other way around. Luckily, thanks also to the Local Action Team and the TOY for Inclusion approach’s flexible structure, every Play Hub was able to develop a tailor-made outreach strategy to make sure that new families and communities could join the Play Hub’s activities. This was done in many different ways, including home visits, distribution of toys directly in the community, mobile Play Hubs, organizing cultural events in the hubs, and favoring outdoor play rather than indoor play. So it was really about building bridges and building trust with children and families in the various communities and slowly bring them in the Play Hub. And this really is something that is paying off after these four years.

Yesterday I was participating in the Italian TOY for Inclusion’s final online event, and there was this representative of the social services in Mazara del Vallo in Sicily. She said something that really struck me. She said: “you know I am a representative of social services, which is something that is normally feared by families, especially vulnerable families, who often see me as the person who can decide if they can keep their children or if their children go in foster care. Thanks to this project, I was able to participate in non-formal educational activities, show families my face in a non-threatening place, join them in fun activities, and see them in a context where they were not pretending and putting up their good face for me. I was seeing their normal interactions with their children and with other families. So now, I know them better, and they know me, and we have an open line of communication that we have never had before”. 

Francesca: Connected with what you have just said, Giulia, if you have to resume in a few words, what is the most meaningful impact of the TOY for Inclusion project in your view?

Giulia: In a few words, it is hard to really summarize the many results and outcomes, and successes of this project. But I would definitively say that we succeeded in bringing families and children closer to services, but most of all, services closer, more approachable, and accessible to them. Thanks to this, many children who would not necessarily go to pre-primary and primary school are now going to formal education, which is a great achievement. We have created safe spaces that belong to children and communities where they recognize themselves and feel a sense of ownership. This gives us a lot of hope for the future because it means that these families, these children, these communities will fight to keep these places open and to do meaningful activities in these places for the years to come. 

Francesca: So we know that the project is coming to an end. Do you have any plans for the future of the TOY Play Hubs? Are they going to be open or, what are the next steps?

Giulia: All the Play Hubs that are currently operational, which are 15 in 8 European countries, will stay open also in 2021, 2022. Most of them receive support from the local authorities. Most of their costs, or some of their costs, will be covered by Municipal budgets, which is also another great achievement. In some other cases, our local partners succeeded in securing the support of local foundations or local corporations that would cover the rest of the costs. I am happy to say that all Play Hubs will stay open and, in some cases, we are even going to expand in new locations in some countries thanks to new funding that came available. So, the dream of TOY for Inclusion to have one Play Hub in every European city is not going to end now, it is actually alive, and it will go on for the next years. 

Francesca: That’s very important. And my last question for you is about the international partnership because we know that the project has been implemented in different European countries, so in your view, what has been the added value of the international partnership? 

Giulia: Having an international project and partnership has been key in developing the TOY for Inclusion approach. I think this approach would not have been the same without this international partnership. We really built this approach based on the experiences and expertise of all the partners of the project and really taking into account how the local context can influence what kind of services and activities children and families need.

We have learned from each other, both the partner organizations and the Local Action Teams, which have been able to meet and exchange experiences on a regular basis throughout these four years. This is also what the members of the Local Action Teams and the partners regard as the most beautiful experience of these four years, this opportunity to get to know like-minded people, grow together, develop together, and learn from each other. Thanks to this cooperation, I am proud to say that we now have a well-developed and structured model with a lot of tools available and translated into many languages that are ready to be used by organizations in other countries to open new Play Hubs and apply the TOY for Inclusion approach. So, I am really thankful, and I actually would like to use this opportunity to thank all the partners of TOY for Inclusion for the wonderful work done in the past four years. 

Francesca: Thank you so much, Giulia, for giving us this overview of the TOY for Inclusion project. I would like to invite our listeners to learn more about the project on our webpage.

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

How can trainers and practitioners be empowered to set-up and operate play spaces for individuals from different backgrounds and ages? See here..

What are some recommendations to practitioners and local authorities on implementing TOY Play Hubs? See here.

Where can someone learn more about the costs of setting up and running a Play Hub? See here.

Where can readers hear the perspectives of those involved in the project (children, Local Action Teams, municipalities)? See here.

Visit the TOY for Inclusion Frequently Asked Questions page to get more answers to your questions about the TOY for Inclusion project.