October 23, 2022
When Playmaker Kristen Raymond first arrived in Poland on a humanitarian aid trip to assist Ukrainian families, a language barrier presented challenges. Fortunately, Kristen was able to overcome the challenge by relying on a language that is universal: play.
“Play is very important in a time like this, to show there's still much good in the world and to offer a healthy way to cope through life's challenges,” she said. “It gives a sense of hope [and] it allowed for positive, trusting relationships with adults and children.”
Kristen, a certified child life specialist who resides in California, joined a group of nine volunteers who traveled with the organization Reach Humanity. The group packed needed supplies and boarded a plane last spring. Among the supplies she prepared for the trip, Kristen was sure to pack a parachute and a variety of other items she knew would be important for connecting with kids.
“Playmaker training can be applied to all aspects of life, but this is where that light can really shine,” Kristen said. “[In helping] people who have just escaped horrific circumstances, being able to process and have hope.”
When they arrived in Poland, Kristen and the other volunteers received a brief orientation, which included being told where to find refugee housing, then they were sent out to offer help to those they encountered “in any way they could.” Play and child engagement were not the primary focus of the trip, but with each volunteer having been given freedoms to bring their unique skills to serving refugee families, Kristen kept the importance of these things at the heart of many of her interactions.
“I carried the parachute around with me, along with some balls that we were able to use. [We] did crafts, bubbles, and played with interactive toys,” she said. “Another key aspect in the various interactions was providing some sort of developmentally appropriate item that could provide joy or happiness along their journey. For the older kids we provided journals, for younger kids coloring books, for example.”
Working in groups of two or three, the volunteers traveled around to different locations. One of the main hubs Kristen visited was Kraków Główny, a large train station set up with sleeping areas, booths supplying help with legal documents, pharmacy, or medical needs, a baby care center, and food stations and grocery. A large plaza outside, which also offered food, sleeping, and clothing amenities, is where many children would be found running around.
“It was a slower pace out on the plaza. People there were generally not running from one booth to the next trying to figure life out, it was more of a break type area,” Kristen recalled. “We were able to play with the kids and give them more extended joy, as they had more time.”
At another center, Kristen encountered a crying child and his exhausted mother. She grabbed some bubbles and, as they played, the child was able calm down. Eventually his siblings joined in, too, enjoying the bubbles and racing matchbox cars. Later, at a train station in a town called Przemysl, it was pipe cleaners that brought joy. People were waiting hours or even days for trains, Kristen recalled. “I walked up and down those aisles handing out pipe cleaners and watching the kids' imaginations soar. The kids kept coming back for more, and they started interacting more with those around them.”
While Kristen said she saw a lot of happiness among the kids and families in the moments she shared with them, she also expressed a heaviness in leaving each situation – not only for the circumstances, but in wishing for more consistency for the children and families. Taking time to engage is important, she noted, but so is using that engagement over time to build trust and inspire hope.
“I've seen play change people for the better,” she said. “The consistency was missing, and it was more than I could offer on my own. That part was hard, I was the only one in my group with this type of training.”
Fortunately, when a great need exists Playmakers step up and look for ways to help. What Kristen couldn’t have known at the time was that another Playmaker Project effort, one intended to have an impact on that much larger scale, was separately already in the works.
After connecting and forming a relationship Ukraine-based Ridni Foundation, and following months of careful collaboration and planning, Playmaker Project guides headed to Poland in August 2022 to conduct a training with 40 child and family services providers from Lviv, Western Ukraine’s largest city. The Guardians of Childhood initiative, as the collaboration is known, continues to be developed in full partnership with RIDNI and expands Playmaker training to Ukraine and surrounding countries.