Understanding the situation
The shelter system in Massachusetts is primarily designed for adults, with staff focused on helping them reach self-sufficiency. Often there is less bandwidth to support the extensive needs of children experiencing homelessness. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, frequent creative play is integral to developing executive functioning skills in young children. Our Playspace Program, started in 1990, embodies our belief that every child has the right to joyful play experiences.
What is a Playspace?
Playspaces are child-friendly rooms that Horizons has installed in more than 90 partner shelters across the state of Massachusetts. Our Playspaces are designed – and play resources are carefully selected – to reflect the needs of children ages 0-6 experiencing trauma. Horizons’ Playspaces are created to give children a dedicated place to play and grow, and build connections with other caring adults who are committed to their success.
No matter the size or shape of the room, the anatomy of a Playspace is the same. Five activity areas are established to address both the age and interest of all children. These activity areas include: dramatic play, arts and crafts, infant, manipulatives, and literacy. We pay careful attention to using a trauma-informed approach, from defined areas of play to calm lighting and color-schemes. Playspaces are well-organized with labeled equipment, play areas, and a variety of materials and toys that inspire children’s imaginations.
How we operate
Each Playspace has two-hour volunteer shifts that occur throughout the week. These shifts are often scheduled in conjunction with financial literacy classes, parenting classes, case management meetings, and other programming that parents need, but are often unable to attend without this support. Playspaces are staffed by a dedicated volunteer corps of 1,000 Playspace Activity Leaders (PALs) – one of the largest groups of volunteers in the state. We currently offer 340 Playspace shifts a week—which is 680 hours of play each week for the children living in shelters. The majority of our shifts take place Monday through Thursday in the evenings from 4:00-8:00pm, but some programs also have morning or late afternoon shifts.
Our PALs serve as positive role models who provide continuity for children at a time of great stress and instability in their lives. Our PALs care, support, and root for the kids they work with. Participating in the Playspace program is incredibly enriching; when asked why they serve as volunteers, PALs we spoke with said,
“Because it feeds my soul” and “You see the impact of your consistent caring attention on the child. You see the child blossom. You provide a sanctuary. It helps center them.”