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To Heal, Learn and Grow, Ukrainian Children Need Play

By: Anne Wilson
November 16, 2022

Child and family services providers attend playmaker training in Poland

"In Ukraine, time is dwindling to prevent another 'lost generation' — the oft-used expression not only for young lives taken, but also for the children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to shifting front lines, or suffer psychological scars too deep to be healed."
-The Children of War, New York Times. August 2022.

When really bad things happen in a child’s world, a shift happens in their brain. Their mind becomes focused on self-preservation, and critical developmental practices (like play and exploration) are pushed to the side.

“As Isabel Behncke says, “the times that seem least suitable for play, may be the times when play is most urgent,” said Ellen Lempereur Greaves, Senior Director of Program and Learning for The Life is Good Playmaker Project. For the children of Ukraine, play is urgent now. 

To cope with life’s challenges, and grow in a healthy way, children need safe spaces where they can freely engage, connect, and explore the world around them, and they need adults who know how to create those spaces.

In August, Playmaker Project team members traveled to the Poland/Ukraine border to meet a group of 40 Ukrainian youth and family services workers from Lviv and provide Playmaker training as part of a partnership called Guardians of Childhood.

“We created a space for these care providers to come together to heal, rejuvenate, and refuel – and what we experienced was optimism at its most powerful,” said Greaves. “I’m not sure I’ve ever met such a fierce group of people, so passionate about their country and its children.” 

"I’m not sure I’ve ever met such a fierce group of people, so passionate about their country and its children.”

Over three days, working through translators and learning through experiential activities, these professionals discovered practices designed to help children heal through play.

It's been said that laughter has no foreign accent, and that play is universal. After the first day, one participant told the guides, “We understand you even without translation.”

The retreat was planned and organized in close partnership with Ridni, a well-respected grassroots children’s charity that serves orphaned or displaced children and children who have experienced significant early trauma. The need for Ridni’s services has grown exponentially since the start of the war. 

Helping children overcome Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is a mission that Ridni and The Playmaker Project share. The Playmaker approach is built on research that shows relationships are the best way to protect and insulate children from the negative impacts of trauma and based on 30 years of practice proving that play is the most effective and impactful way to build those relationships.

“For children to survive, they need food, water, medicine and shelter – but for children to truly live, they must play,” said Chief Playmaker Steve Gross. “For a healthy mind, a child should be focused on joyfully exploring the world around them.”

Retreat participants learned The Playmaker Project’s trauma-informed, play-based practices along with strategies to protect and support their own mental health and wellbeing. At the end of the retreat, they walked away with customized self-care plans to sustain their own energy in the work, and with activities, parachutes, and other tools that help activate and protect children’s sense of joy and wonder.

Playmakers in Poland with RIDNI

“I am coming back from this training with a light that will shine, to my colleagues, to my kids, to myself.” 

“I am coming back from this training with a light that will shine, to my colleagues, to my kids, to myself,” said one participant. “My goal is that when one lightbulb begins to die, 10 others will light the way and recharge it. We are charged up like that…we will create a net that will weave happiness for every child in Ukraine.”   

And these newly trained Playmakers are already shining their light. Just days after the training ended, one woman shared a story on social media about how she put optimism and play into action right away.

When sirens sent Lviv residents to shelter in an underground parking garage, Bozhena Zharkovska remembered the parachute she had tucked in her car and brought it out to play games with the children sheltering in the same space. In that moment, she transformed an overwhelming and frightening experience into one that was joyful and engaging. 

The partnership will continue through a blended approach that leverages new online Playmaker learning platforms, as well as a Train the Trainer program. The Playmaker and Ridni teams continue to connect regularly, and there is enthusiasm for thinking about ways to scale this project to reach even more children across Ukraine. 

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