From crisis to crayons
A roadmap for early childhood education and care for refugee children
Picture fitting your entire life into a single suitcase, your three-year-old child holding your hand as the only anchor in a sea of uncertainty. Now, imagine being in a new country, leaving behind everything and everyone you knew, all while trying to create a sense of normalcy, routine, and safety for your child. Think about the struggle of getting your child into a local kindergarten in this unfamiliar place, where only a few speak your language. This has been the journey for many Ukrainian mothers who came to Europe in search of safety and stability for their children.
The war in Ukraine represents a refugee crisis of a scale unseen in Europe since the Second World War. From 24 February 2022 to November 2023, over 5.8 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded across Europe, and 5.26 million have registered for temporary protection. Around 20 per cent of the Ukrainian refugee children arriving in the EU since the start of the war are estimated to be under the age of 6. This stage of childhood is foundational to everything that follows later in life, and to healthy growth and development. Investment in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) services is of the greatest importance to take advantage of this short but critical window of opportunity as those services can act as a protective factor against the adversities that can affect child development. Yet, data indicates that only 1 in 3 refugee children from Ukraine are enrolled in early childhood education and care in Europe.
In collaboration with renowned research experts and members of the EU Working Group on Early Childhood Education and Care, the UNICEF Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia closely examined the situation concerning young refugee children arriving in Europe, as well as the various approaches adopted by different countries, both at the central and local government levels, to integrate these children into nurseries and day-cares, kindergartens, preschools, or newly established Play and Learning Hubs. In this process, we systematically sought to understand the needs and gaps within early childhood education and care systems. Subsequently, we strategically adjusted UNICEF’s programmes to support governments in addressing and meeting those identified needs.
As a result, UNICEF have created a briefing package for decision-makers and practitioners to inspire and accelerate action for the youngest refugee children in Europe. We have gained valuable evidence-driven insights throughout this process, collaborating with various municipalities, decision-makers, and Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) practitioners:
- In Denmark, we learned about a job bank for retired early childhood educators who stepped in to ensure the rapid expansion of necessary services for newly arrived Ukrainian children.
- In Lithuania, we discovered special regulations that allow Ukrainian ECEC professionals to work in their field without requiring standard diploma or certificate recognition procedures.
- In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the central government has implemented grant schemes to fund an expansion in ECEC spaces in municipalities hosting Ukrainian refugees.
- In Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania UNICEF has also played an important role by providing financial support and offering technical assistance for the establishment of 154 Play and Learning Hubs (PLHs) across six refugee-hosting countries.
These are just a few examples of the many ideas and approaches that have been used and a testament to solidarity, shared responsibility, and support across Europe.
UNICEF calls on central and local governments to continue their commitment to addressing this sudden and critical need to expand access to early childhood education and care, for every child.
Building bright futures: Integration of Ukraine's refugee children through early childhood education
Recent data show that two-thirds of young Ukrainian refugee children are currently not enrolled in the host country's early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. By publishing two policy briefs on the expansion of early childhood education and care and the role of ECEC in the integration of Ukrainian young children and their families, UNICEF is continuing the advocacy for the inclusion of all young children in ECEC, with a focus on Ukrainian young refugee children across Europe.