They come in many shapes and sizes, from open-air tents to repurposed subway stations. But every one of the 182 Spilno centers that UNICEF and partners have set up in Ukraine is a comfortable, nurturing space where children can go to just be kids again for a while, away from the pressures of growing up in a war zone.
'Spilno' means 'together' in Ukrainian; the multipurpose centers are much-needed places where out-of-school children can get together with other children, playing and learning and making new friends. In the past year, more than half a million children and their caregivers visited one.
A place for children to play, and for families to connect with vital services
Spilno centers give displaced parents the chance to take a break while professional teachers and psychologists conduct master classes and play developmental games with the children.
They also serve as a hub, connecting children and parents with child protection services, mental health and psychological support, referrals for additional health services and registration for humanitarian cash transfers that help families meet their most urgent needs.
A child-friendly space underground in a Kharkiv subway station
When the war escalated in March, thousands of people fleeing gunfire and shelling in the streets of Kharkiv took refuge in the city's subway system. By April 2022, an estimated 1,500 children and their mothers were living in 29 metro stations. UNICEF set up an underground Spilno site to provide activities and a sense of normalcy for displaced children.
Making art gives children a chance to heal
Art supplies and craft materials are always on hand at Spilno centers. Expressing themselves through art can help children cope with some of the trauma they've experienced.
Classes and activities help displaced teenagers adapt to their new reality
At a Spilno in Kropyvnytskyi, in central Ukraine, parents and babies play on rugs, children play board games and teenagers take English classes. Many are displaced, like 15-year-old Bohdan. "I'd go crazy if I just got stuck in my apartment," he said. "I think I would keep saying 'I want home.' "
"The most difficult cases involve the teenagers," said Olena, a professional teacher at the center. "They need to find friends with the same interests and views. My goal is to push them forward and show that they're not guilty, that they can continue living their happy life."
A heated tent filled with toys and educational materials in Balakliya
As soon as the city of Balakliya in the Kharkiv region was liberated in September 2022, UNICEF set up a Spilno center in the central square. Every day, children and parents flock to the tent filled with colorful toys and children's furniture. The tent is equipped with generators and fan heaters to keep children warm while they play.
"Kids call me fairy here because I give a lot of good to them for free," Olena, a senior administrator at the center, said in December. "I learn from them and they learn from me."
"Each child is an inspiring, huge world," Olena said. "I always ask what they would like to do. I am a psychologist, a mother and an entertainment center all in one. Now, the Spilno Spot is the only place in Balakliya that brings them joy."
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Top photo: On Sept. 1, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine, a girl draws at a Spilno center set up by UNICEF and partners to provide a welcoming place where children affected by the war can make friends, play, learn and connect with support services. © UNICEF/UN0698525/Kulakowskiy