Connecting through play: ECEC Play Hub & Toy Library support strengthening communities for children
The aim of EU Child Guarantee programme is to ensure that no child, regardless of the conditions they live in, feels excluded or unable to do something
Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) Play Hub and Toy Library in Orehovica, is being organised by UNICEF's implementating partner, Open Academy "Step by Step", part of the pilot programme Phase III: Testing the Child Guarantee in Croatia, funded by the European Union.
The European Child Guarantee in Croatia aims to ensure equitable chances in life for every child, so no child is left behind. This begins with addressing the underlying causes of child poverty and social exclusion so that all children can have access to key quality services: child protection services and family support, access to preschool education and access to early intervention services.
In Orehovica, a municipality in Međimurje county in Croatia, not all children are included in early or preschool education. Some of them only attend the compulsory preschool programme prior to starting school. Around 18 percent of Roma live in the municipality, and some children do not speak Croatian at home with their families.
“Krenimo zajedno” ECEC Play Hub and Toy Library in Orehovica has recently become an important meeting place for all children and their families, particularly those living in disadvantaged conditions. On their own or with their family members, children can spend quality time here, socialise with other children, develop their skills or borrow didactic toys to play with at home. The informal setting of the Centre also allows parents to “open up” more easily and discuss problems and challenges that they are facing. The coordinators and associates then work on trying to find experts, who can organise workshops on these topics, and on including and supporting other parents. Activities in the Hub are created and implemented on ‘TOY for inclusion’ principles.
The coordinator of the ECEC Play Hub and Toy Library Monika Horvat, a preschool teacher, and her colleague Valentina Balog like to talk about why they enjoy working with children and how they provide support to families in the Centre through workshops, advice and games.
Valentina is a professional cook, but in her search for work she found an opening for an assistant in a preschool, where she now helps children with disabilities. Over time, she also started working in Play Centre, and is responsible for the Toy Library where children can play with and borrow didactic toys. The Play Centre is located near a Roma neighbourhood. Valentina is from the Roma community herself. This facilitates her approach with parents and children, who use the Play Hub's services, trust her completely and enjoy talking to her. She helps many of them communicate as not all of them speak Croatian well. Monika also speaks Bayash and often joins them.
“When preparing and considering each activity I pay special attention to ensuring that no child, regardless of the conditions they live in, feels excluded or unable do something or participate in something. This is why I try to think of activities that parents can do with their children at home and to include the whole family. I always make sure to use materials that are accessible to everyone, such as pen and paper”, says Monika and she adds, “The importance of the Play Hub for the community and its acceptance among parents is perhaps best exemplified by a dad who, hurried home after work to make pancakes so that he could bring them to the Play Hub for everyone on several occasions. I am happy that the Phase III pilot: “Testing the Child Guarantee in Croatia” will enable the ECEC Play Hub and Toy Library to further strengthen its important role in providing support and serving as a meeting place for children and families in Orehovica”, she concluded.
Denis decided to put household chores aside and spend time with his sons Mihael (9) and Karlo (6) participating in an art workshop. Denis describes his sons Karlo and Mihael as happy, playful and active boys. Talking to them, we learned that Karlo is especially interested in drawing, while Mihael prefers playing with toys. Mihael, who is now in second-grade shared that he’s interested in informatics, but also in math, which he excels in. He’s also thinking about his future job and options he’s an considering being an astronaut, an IT specialist or a criminologist, although he was a little worried about the distance from his parents should he choose the first one. Karlo has yet to start school, but says tigers are his favourite animal and he likes to play with toy cars the most.
“I have autism”, said Mihael at one point and explained that he would rather not be an astronaut after all, since it was too dangerous. After talking to the boys, it’s clear that their dad is right: Mihael and Karlo are truly wonderful children with incredible potential.
Dubravka also visited the ECEC Play Hub and Toy Library with her three daughters. The eldest Tihana (14), who came as a chaperon to her younger sisters, likes going for walks and cats are her favourite animal. She wants to practice medicine when she grows up, and has excellent grades. Tihana often has an eye on her younger sisters, Elma (6) and Zijada (5). Elma is getting ready for school by attending a preschool, and her favourite thing to do is play with her friend Dunja. Dubravka, their mother, is happy they have a place where both children and parents can spend time. She says: “They enjoy it, and so do we.”
We found Tatjana and her daughter Leona (3.5) painting. Tatjana explained that, before the pandemic, they would come to the Hub to play every week, leaving with a toy they borrowed. “Leona is a really good girl”, said her mom. Most of all, she likes to play with her mom, dad and grandparents, and she has a lot of friends in kindergarten.
While washing paint from her hands, Lora shared that her older brother Noa had chosen her name. They have a special bond and Lora, who is eight, shared that she likes spending time together with him, In school, all subjects are her favourite and she loves rabbits. She named her grandmother’s rabbit Gricka. In the workshop, Lora enjoys helping younger children and spending time with them.
Filip (8) also likes spending time in the Hub, most of all to play, but he likes school as well. His favourite subject is Croatian. He feels so at home there that he helps the workshop leaders clean up after the workshop is over. Good job, Filip!
Although they are a little shy Zara (7) and Zita (5) share that they love roller skating. Their roller-skating abilities are already excellent, and when skating, they are often accompanied by their grandmother Ana, who takes them to the Centre sometimes. Admittedly, Ana has been spending less time on roller skates recently, but Zita is working on perfecting her own skills and often skates to the Centre. Ana is also in charge of culinary treats. While Zara likes to cook and bake cakes with her grandmother, Zita likes to eat muffins. Zara prefers peach cookies breskvice and the layered cake mađarica. Their grandmother said: “They can eat fruit and vegetables for the whole of Orehovica”. While Zara’s favourite fruit are blueberries and watermelon, Zita prefers strawberries and bananas.
These hubs and toy libraries are designed to fill a gap, but with the idea to eventually expand formal services so that they are accessible for all children, complementing formal services.
With the main goal of reducing child poverty and social exclusion for all children across the European Union, the European Commission, in partnership with UNICEF, is implementing “Phase III of the pilot programme: Testing the Child Guarantee” in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Germany, Italy, Lithuania and Spain.
Croatia has been given the opportunity to test the EU Child Guarantee in cooperation with European Commission and UNICEF to tackle child poverty and social exclusion. To develop models of new services and best practices for children and their families, UNICEF is using its experience, partnerships and capacities by modelling integrated multidisciplinary, adequately funded community and family-based services in Medjimurje County, the region with limited access to child protection and family support services. UNICEF's approach includes three components/areas: access to child protection and family support services, access to early childhood education and access to early childhood intervention services.
©UNICEF, 2021. “The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.”
Open Academy "Step by Step" is the implementating partner of the UNICEF Croatia for the implementation of the pilot programme “Phase III: Testing the Child Guarantee in Croatia”, funded by the European Union.