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Starting with Playtime: Supporting Refugee Child Development

Early in the morning Sara Saunders Lasu rolls a trunk of toys into the basement of City Covenant Church. She places a mat on the floor and begins to place toys on the floor. Stacks of blocks in one corner. Play-Doh on the table.

The first people arrive: A mother and her baby girl. Sara greets her in Swahili. Jambo! Soon the room is full of screeches as toddlers begin to build towers and knock them down. The jumping turtles hold their stiff legs in the air while they are filled with blocks. One baby scuttles across the room on her knees at crazy speed.

Several mothers circle a table. They guide scissors through paper while their older kids draw faces on the cutouts. Soon streams of people, cats and elephants litter the surface. The women smile and chat a little.

Sara sets up play and learn.

There are so many aspects of resettlement that can overwhelm a refugee parent. Learning English, getting a job, enrolling children in school, navigating cultural differences…even street signs display strange symbols that mean very little to newcomers.

With SO much for their parents to learn, children can start to feel lost. Flourishing in Spokane isn’t just about having the basics to survive, but also about having fun together. Community-Minded Enterprises (CME) recently received a grant to empower refugee families in the early stages of their children’s development. CME subcontracted with local agencies such as World Relief, Thrive and the Spokane Slavic Association to optimize the program for refugees with children five and under.

With a background in elementary education, Sara was an ideal candidate for implementing CME’s Play & Learn program at World Relief. As Family Navigator, her goal is to empower refugee families in supporting their child’s development.

“They choose what’s helpful to them, when and how much they want to participate,” said Sara, the Family Navigator at World Relief Spokane. “They enroll, and we support them with what they feel is helpful for them.”

Navigating Available Resources

Refugees may experience confusion when it comes to navigating school enrollment, finding childcare, applying for WIC and accessing other family resources available to the Spokane community.

This family program helps them navigate all these resources. Between office and home visits, Sara helps parents decide what resources will benefit them. Then she accompanies them in accessing these resources.

“I make sure they save the phone numbers for these places on their phone and know how to be in touch themselves,” said Sara. Sara seeks to empower parents so that they feel confident in accessing these resources themselves.

“How to be able to say, ‘I need an interpreter for this language,’ because some places will provide an interpreter.”

Children playing and learning.

Tracking Child Development

Using an Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), parents can identify areas in which their child may be ahead or behind for their age group.

Parents are asked questions based on their child’s age range. This may cover topics such as speech or physical abilities.

If a child is concerningly behind in their development, parents may be given tips on how to support their child, e.g., placing toys just out of reach to encourage a child to roll over.

If necessary, they may be referred to a professional.

Play and Learn

Play and Learns focus on gathering families together for them to participate in fun activities, while providing helpful family resources. Everyone is invited to participate: mothers, fathers, grandparents and older siblings, etc.

While there, children get to play alongside each other, which develops social skills for kindergarten. Registered families have the opportunity to attend Play and Learns in any location which ensures wider access to resources.

The goal of a Play and Learn is not to provide free childcare, but for parents to play alongside their children. Sara encourages parents to take a breather from daily stressors and carve out time to engage with their kids and teach life skills.

A variety of group activities are offered, such as building paper chains, butterflies and cutting out snowflakes. Sara emphasizes that the crafts build fine motor skills, which is helpful for the toddlers.

Playtime with the kids.

“It may seem like a waste of time, but for a child that’s a learning opportunity.” As the program continues to grow, Sara envisions parents leading craft time and experiencing a sense of ownership.

Sara recognizes the impact that Play and Learns can have on refugee mothers. They can cultivate friendships with others who speak their language and share their hearts with one another. Childcare is expensive, and refugee families can be large. Mothers often experience a sense of isolation due to literacy, language and cultural barriers.

“If you have a language barrier, you may not even be able to connect with your neighbors.”

Sara looks forward to building a community in which all refugee mothers can support each other. Even though conversations may be limited between the different cultures, the women still engage in small talk and encourage their children to play with each other.

“I’d love to see it become more of a space where anybody, with any language and cultural barrier, can feel like this is their place and everybody here is their community.”

Consider being an essential part of a refugee family’s life and join us as a volunteer.

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