Date: 17-04-2023

Play Hubs: nonformal ECEC supporting young Ukrainian children in Slovakia and Hungary

From February 2022, 8 million Ukrainian refugees were registered across Europe. The vast majority has arrived in Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic. Forty percent of these refugees are children, who have witnessed distressing events and are experiencing anxiety and unhappiness that could develop into long-term mental health difficulties.

It is difficult to retrieve official statistics about Ukrainian refugees by age, but according to a report published by UNHCR in February 2023, an estimated 26% of Ukrainian refugees are between zero and 10 years old, with an equal distribution of boys and girls.

Integrating Ukrainian refugees into national systems is proving to be challenging for smaller European countries, such as Slovakia and Hungary, especially when it comes to ensuring that refugee children have access to education. According to the same UNHCR report, in Slovakia and Hungary, approximately 40% of Ukrainian refugee households with (pre)school-aged children have at least one child not registered for education in the hosting country. The reasons for not enrolling in education within the host country vary from preferring online education in Ukrainian (63%), to the lack of space in schools (15%), to language barriers (13%), to the belief that they will only stay in the hosting country for a very limited time (7%).

Providing safe, welcoming, multi-service spaces for these children and their caregivers is crucial to promote their psychosocial well-being and ensure their access to education, health, and protection services, as well as to increase their chances to integrate in their hosting countries.

Since July 2022, ICDI and the national coordinators of the TOY for Inclusion program in Slovakia, Škola dokorán, and in Hungary, Partner Hungary Foundation, have been providing support to young Ukrainian refugee children and caregivers through play and learning opportunities. All three organizations are long-standing ISSA Members. 

In Slovakia, thanks to UNICEF’s support, partners were able to open six new Play Hubs in 2022 and four more will open their doors in 2023 alongside a mobile Play Hub supported by EPIM.  

In Hungary, a mobile Play Hub will reach underserved communities starting in the Spring 2023 (also supported by EPIM), and 12 Play Hubs will be established in cooperation with War Child.

In 2023, ICDI will open the first Play Hub in Ukraine, in Kyiv, in cooperation with Labour and Health Social Initiatives – LHSI.

The TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs are community-based inclusive non formal educational spaces for young children and families. In the Play Hubs relationships between young children and families from all backgrounds are built through playing together, borrowing toys, connecting services and sharing information about childrearing, health, early learning and development.

The Play Hubs offer safe and welcoming spaces for internally displaced children and families, where they:

  • socialize and make new friends,
  • learn the local language,
  • express emotions, and process traumatic experiences,
  • get to know their new community,
  • be introduced to education and other services,
  • get specialized support in different areas through direct referral: education, health, housing, employment, etc.


In January 2023, ICDI published two new resources for practitioners working in formal and nonformal ECEC services who want to promote the psychosocial well-being and integration of young refugee children and their caregivers:

  • the ‘Play for Inclusion’ Handbook, which provides important background theory on the effects of war, displacement and trauma on child development and well-being, the concept of community-based child-friendly spaces in emergencies and an easy-to-use selection of simple activities that can be organized in Play Hubs and other non-formal and informal education settings involving children and caregivers. (Available in English and Slovak, and soon also in Ukrainian and Hungarian)
  • the “Mobile Play Hub Operating Guidelines”, intended for organizations wishing to set up and run Mobile Play Hubs for children aged birth to 10 years old and make (outdoor) play more accessible to children of all ages. This resource also comprises of a set of Activity Cards that provide inspiration for outdoor play. (Available in English and soon also in Slovak, Hungarian, and Ukrainian).

The experiences of those working in Slovakia and Hungary have been rich and provide inspirational insights into the impact the TOY for Inclusion approach can make. The teams from Slovakia and Hungary share their expriences below.

Play and Learning Hubs in Slovakia

Play and Learning Hubs for Slovak and Ukrainian children have been implemented in Slovakia as a part of the UNICEF humanitarian response since July 2022. This intervention has evolved from a first humanitarian response to a more targeted long-term response focusing on integration and inclusion. 

The project is implemented by Škola dokorán - Wide Open School n.o., with the aim of strengthening understanding and cooperation between people from different cultures, as well as supporting an approach based on social cohesion, where all members of local communities, including refugees, share services and have equal access to activities and workshops.

In coordination with the participating municipalities, our organization has established Play and Learning Hubs and mobilized local communities to provide quality and inclusive learning opportunities for children aged zero to 10 years and their caregivers. The Hubs are located in six municipalities in Slovak Republic – Žilina, Prešov, Košice, Tatranská Lomnica, Poprad, Spišská Nová Ves. These locations have been identified in a prior needs analysis, and on average, the Hubs reach more than 5,000 beneficiaries per month.

Four more Play and Learning Hubs and several mobile Play Hubs will be established in 2023.

What exactly do we do in the Play and Learning Hubs?

  • We play and learn together. We strengthen relationships between children, parents and grandparents through joint activities based not just on common interests, but also on topics and issues of concern to both children and adults.
  • We read together. We do not take reading literacy lightly! As well as promoting reading skills, we also work to develop reading comprehension and language skills of children. We also work very diligently to build children's love of books and stories.
  • We stay healthy and strong together. We place great emphasis on the physical and mental health of ch­­ildren and adults. Human closeness, shared activities outdoors and indoors are healing for individuals, and help us build community and supportive relationships.

We also provide capacity building and training opportunities for teachers, professionals, assistants, and others who care for children in the Hubs.

One of the challenges we faced early on was the lack of data and information. Given the constantly changing situation in Ukraine, we had to be very flexible and adapt our activities and interventions “as we went”. The group of children and adults who are our target group is very diverse — as are their needs, limitations, expectations, etc. However, all situations we have faced have taught us a lot and we are now able to offer tailor-made services for everyone entering our Hubs.

The implementation of this project has taught us to respond very flexibly to the needs of children and adults. We see that psychosocial support is extremely important for people who have experienced adverse circumstances. For this reason, we provided psychosocial support trainings to our staff, and we cooperate frequently with psychologists. In all our activities, we keep in mind that it is essential to create an environment (both in terms of physical space and atmosphere) for activities where children and adults feel safe, comfortable and like to return. We also realized that connecting Ukrainians and other people from the community and involving all of them in common activities is important for the well-being of Ukrainian children and adults, fostering their sense of belonging and building strong foundations of social cohesion in the community and the whole society.

It is amazing for us to see how Slovak children help Ukrainian children, how they play with them and try to get along without using any language, or using all the languages they speak at once. What is even more beautiful for us is to see situations when you cannot determine where a child is from because they all laugh and have fun in the same way and all feel equally accepted and involved in the activities.

We are very happy that we are already seeing Ukrainian families "putting down roots". Many families have already started to build relationships with people (other Ukrainians, Slovakians or other nationalities), in the workplace, the Play Hubs, schools, kindergartens and neighborhoods where they live.  


Play Hubs in Hungary

When the war broke out, thousands of Hungarians — individuals, civil society organizations, companies, large humanitarian organizations, and municipalities — immediately started to help. They did this mostly by providing food, accommodation, and other kinds of humanitarian aid.  

All our staff at Partners Hungary also started to help in some ways, as individuals. One colleague went to the border to help, while another went to the Keleti railway station to distribute food, and another volunteered at a temporary shelter for refugees. 

As an organization we needed some time to understand the situation until we could intervene in a strategic way. We realized that we were not very experienced in providing humanitarian aid, and there were a lot of other organizations and individuals more capable than us to offer this kind of support. So, we started to look at our strengths and how they could be put in use in this situation.   

We realized that Hungary is in a special situation regarding the Ukraine response, as the refugees are not refugees in legal terms. While those entering Hungary are fleeing the war, and they are disadvantaged not only because of the war. Most of the Ukrainians staying in Hungary belong to the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, and most of them are Roma by ethnic background. Some have Hungarian citizenship according to a law introduced in 2011. Most of them are children and women coming from the Transcarpathian region hoping to have a safer and better life in Hungary. 

We knew that the Play Hubs we established in that past four years in cooperation with ICDI, and other civil society organizations in the region, were providing safe environments for Roma and non-Roma children and families to play, and access services. Every Play Hub offered tailor-made support and programs based on the needs that were identified by the Local Action Team, composed of the professionals who work for the children and families across sectors (education, health, and social services).  

It became obvious that our Play Hubs be our strongest response for Ukrainian children as well. Based on this analysis, we took different steps in this direction.

In October 2022, we partnered with ICDI and Skola Dokoran and are going to open the first Mobile Play Hub in Hungary in the Spring 2023.

At the end 2022, we started cooperating with War Child, and in the course of 2023, we will establish 12 new Play Hubs all over Hungary to serve all the children in local communities with special focus on the Ukrainian children for whom play can be a tool to heal their trauma and stress caused by the war. 

We have also realized in our extensive experience working with and supporting Roma, that through their lens it was very unfair that “other Roma” – coming from Ukraine – were receiving free food, accommodation and clothes, while those who has been living in Hungary for hundreds of years still suffered from many forms of discrimination - in the labor market, housing and education - and many of them suffer from deep poverty as well. This double standard is leading to more prejudice and tension in Hungary. We believed that Partners Hungary could try to mitigate the risks. Our approach of intercultural mediation seemed like a fitting solution for bringing the local Roma and the newcomers together and helping them identify their joint interest in advocating for themselves. We will train 12 mediators in six locations to form their joint community action teams and bring the interested stakeholders together to find the solutions for their problems and implement local projects.  

While thinking and planning our strategy and analyzing the needs, we started to see the situation as an opportunity to build more cohesive communities. We believe that by persuading municipalities of the benefits of inclusion, not only in the case of the refugees but for everyone, and the need to provide better services for all, we can increase everyone’s resiliency and provide better life quality for all. 

We always find that we need to deepen our knowledge and need to learn new things when we step into a new field. While getting into the work with the Ukrainian refugees, we realized that we did not know enough about the consequences of a war on children’s and adults’ well-being, so we found the way to learn more on the nature of trauma and stress and how to create a safe environment for children and families to heal and being able to reorganize their lives. This knowledge is very important for all those professionals who are working with children. Now we have started to spread this knowledge through trainings and workshops all over Hungary.   



Giulia Cortellesi, Co-Director of International Child Development Initiatives

Erika Szaboova, Communications Manager of Škola dokorán - Wide Open School n.o.

Éva Deák, Executive Director of Partners Hungary Foundation


Photos Courtesy of  Škola dokorán - Wide Open School n.o.