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. 

Importance of Activities with Roma Parents in Slovakia

Striving to provide children in Slovak marginalized Roma communities with an optimal environment for their development, upbringing, and education, REYN Slovakia supports parents to improve and streamline their parenting skills, their parental competencies, and stimulates child’s development from birth.

To support parental competencies of Roma parents from Slovak marginalized Roma communities better, very specific programs are run by the Slovak government, but also by several NGOs, some of which are members of REYN Slovakia.

Members of REYN Slovakia have very specific expertise and run various programs. They communicate together regularly, exchange their experiences and good practices, give advice to one another, coordinate their activities, join forces to actively influence early childhood and parental policies and improve quality of lives of Roma children and their families.  

TOY for Inclusion and its magic

Wide Open School n.o. – Škola Dokorán,the founding member of the network REYN Slovakiaruns a project TOY for Inclusion.

“This project involves “hard-to-reach” young children from migrant and ethnic minority backgrounds in high-quality inclusive non-formal community education and early childhood care initiatives, facilitates their smooth transition to primary education and improves their learning experience in the long term,“ says Miroslav Sklenka, the director of Wide Open School n.o. – Škola dokorán.

TOY for Inclusion project is well known in several communities in the eastern part of Slovakia thanks to Play Hubs, where the “magic” happens – when children and their parents enter the realm of toys, and books, and play, some of them for the first time in their life. One of the communities for a Play Hub is located in the local elementary school in Spišský Hrhov.

“Families who come to Play Hubs, informal centers run by local action teams, not only spend time with their children, but also meet new families from different backgrounds. The new relationships and ties they will establish in toy libraries are expanding into other spheres as well,” shares director of the school, Mr. Peter Strážik

AFLATOUN encourages holistic development

Another programme – AFLATOUN/AFLATOTis run by the Open Society Foundation Bratislava and focuses on social and financial education. The program is implemented mainly in marginalized Roma communities. During the program, families learn basic strategies to support their children in their implementation of independent decisions, in perceiving their emotions, discovering nature and its resources, and learning how to save and spend responsibly, and how to share.

“Working with families is a very important since it promotes their involvement in the education and development of children in a more systematic and conscious way. The involvement of parents, especially in early childhood, encourages the holistic development of the child,” says the program manager Erika Szabóová.

Kindergarten Spišská Nová Ves started to implement the programme in 2015.

“The reactions we get from parents are very positive. They cooperate with us eagerly – not only by working on all homework connected with social and financial education with their children, but also by taking part in various community activities we organize,” says the kindergarten director Jana Zajacová.


Organization OZ Detstvo deťom implements programme AMALKY. The core of the programme are mentors – peer activists who engage in early intervention in the Roma community, directly in families at risk of generational poverty. In the natural home environment, in the presence of mothers, they take care of children from the youngest to preschool age.

“Our activities are prepared in a way which respects the age of children and fosters their development. We bring various developing toys and activities to the families: puzzles, cubes, Montessori activities, children’s books, pencils, crayons, papers, worksheets, and coloring books,” says NGO director Eleonóra Liptáková.

Although not a REYN Slovakia member, a lot of activities in the same field REYN members work in are done by the Office of the Plenipotentiary of the Government of the Slovak Republic for Roma Communities. NP PRIM I and NP PRIM II are projects run on a national level. NP PRIM I focused primarily on families and children from marginalized Roma communities, who were not enrolled in kindergarten and did not attend any form of preschool, but did not exclude other parents and children. NP PRIM II strengthens cooperation with families by creating a new non-pedagogical position in the kindergarten – parental assistant. This assistant helps children and their families with the adaptation and socialization process in kindergartens. The parental assistant works directly with the families of the children in their natural, home environment, which proved successful in NP PRIM I.

These and other programmes and projects focused on the importance of activities with Roma parents in Slovakia to help parents create a better, healthier, successful present and future for their children and thus for the whole Roma community.

Read more about REYN Slovakia and follow their Facebook page

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.

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.