Learning through play during COVID-19

During COVID-19 pandemic, Melisa (9) misses her teacher and classmates.

Jelena Terzic
Melisa plays at home
UNICEF Serbia/2020/Shubuckl
20 May 2020

“Ludo is my favourite game, because I always win!” exclaims nine-year-old Melisa Ostic, as she opens the Family box for learning and play in the modest apartment she lives in with her mother. Melisa received the box from UNICEF, thanks to the financial support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). What she found inside, apart from the boardgame she loves so much, are books, building blocks, pencils, picture books, crayons, and other games.

Melisa is a winner not only when she plays games, but also when she completes her schoolwork. But she admits that it’s been difficult for her during the coronavirus epidemic, because schools have closed. She is able to finish all her schoolwork with the help of her mom and she’s getting straight As, including in her favourite subject, Serbian. But Melisa misses her teacher and classmates.

“We would get out only when we had to get or buy something”, Sanja Ostic, a single mother, describes the time during self-isolation. “We were spending our days in this small room. Melisa would do her homework and assignments. Her teacher sent assignments by phone. We would watch TV, read, play, and pass the time that way."

For Sanja, the days of uncertainty, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, were particularly hard. Not only because of the fear of infection, but more so because she was worried how her family would tackle the economic consequences. The Ostic family lives on social assistance and Sanja gets the family’s meals from the Red Cross in Belgrade.

“We’ve been getting our food there for several years now. They always help us, whenever we need something and whenever they organize something that can be of help, they call us”, Sanja explains.

Melisa (9) was most excited about the board games in the Family Learning and Play Box.
UNICEF Srbija/2020/Shubuckl
Melisa (9) was most excited about the board games in the Family Learning and Play Box.

This year, the Red Cross called them on the International Day of Families. Because in every crisis, vulnerable families find it particularly difficult to cope.

That morning Melisa was happy, knowing that she was about to get a present. Those are the best days, the days she gets presents, says Melisa. She didn’t know that her favourite board game was part of the Family box for learning and play. Her mother sewed her a mask for the occasion, with string ties matching her headband.  

Melisa also met up with her friends, all of them were just as excited about the presents that will help them to learn and play.

A total of 3,200 Family boxes will be distributed to the most vulnerable families in over 60 municipalities across Serbia. An additional 104 packages were already distributed to children living in 16 residential institutions and to 330 children in refugee and migrant centres.

UNICEF designed the Family box to support learning through play for children and adults, thus stimulating the development of children aged 0 to 10.

“During COVID-19, families have proven to be the nucleus of resilience, adaptability and positive spirit”, believes Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF Representative in Serbia. “But this crisis has often made children invisible. That’s why it is very important to tackle the psychosocial stress that children are exposed to. We think that through learning and play, children bolster their resilience and that we will once again be able to imagine a positive and joyful future.”

According to the words of the US Ambassador to Serbia, Anthony Godfrey, USAID promptly responded to UNICEF's call to help children with toys and didactic tools.

“While we and our friends in the EU and elsewhere were bringing in test kits, protective equipment and other medical supplies, I am glad that UNICEF was also thinking about how such a crisis affects children, especially with schools closed down. We hope that they will have fun with these boxes, and learn with them”, said Ambassador Godfrey.

The Ministry in charge of population policy also believes that.

“The idea is that all family members through play, learning and support participate in the development of children, thereby showing family unity”, pointed out Minister Slavica Djukic Dejanovic and President of the Child Rights Council.

UNICEF Serbia/2020

By distributing Family boxes for learning and play on the International Day of Families, the Red Cross is closing the Red Cross Week in the best possible way, according to Prof. Dr. Dragan Radovanovic, the President of this organization in Serbia.

"I expect that Family boxes for our youngest will mitigate the consequences of this crisis, which is hopefully passing, and that children will understand that solidarity is one of the most important qualities they must exhibit throughout their lives.”

The Red Cross will receive field support from health mediators and local Roma NGOs, who are in daily communication with families in Roma settlements over the phone and social media. They also encourage them to take photos and record videos in play and learning with children, and thus show that they are proud of each other and that they support to each other.