Creating Powerful Playtimes with Horizons for Homeless Children

At Boston Children’s Museum, we are so excited to be partnering with Horizons for Homeless Children to develop and test new ways of bringing the power of play to families both inside and outside the Museum’s walls. As part of a two year project, generously funded by Eastern Bank, Museum and Horizons staff have been developing and piloting new programming and resources for families living in shelter. This piece, written by Molly Halpin from Horizons, offers a peek into the beginnings of our ongoing work together.


Parents living in shelter face the daily acute challenges of establishing housing and building economic stability for their family. The idea of stopping to play with their child can seem unimportant relative to the pressing matters around them, but strong relationships with caring adults and early exposure to positive learning experiences are at the core of a child’s ability to thrive long term. “Having parents get down on the floor and join their child’s world of play communicates that they really care about them. Just the act of engaging a child in play will help to develop trust and communication which fosters strong social connections between parent and child,” said Lynne Gaines, Horizons’ Program Director of Playspace.

Responding to this realization, Boston Children’s Museum and Horizons for Homeless Children joined forces to create the Powerful Playtimes playgroup, the first of several programs to come out of the ongoing partnership between the Museum, Horizons and Eastern Bank, which has generously funded the collaboration. 

The pandemic sparked the need for more outreach when the Museum team realized that families couldn’t physically come to the Museum as they once had. After putting these programs into place they realized they now had the capability to share their resources and programming with families who might not have had access to the physical space even before the pandemic. The Museum’s understanding of play as a powerful tool for learning combined with Horizons’ knowledge of early education, trauma informed care and established connections with local shelters, gave the two organizations the ability to bring valuable programming directly to vulnerable families in the shelter setting.

The first 5-week-program hosted in 3 shelters in the greater Boston area, all of which were staffed by experts from Horizons and the Museum, recently concluded. Each week focused on a different toy or object and showed parents how to turn it into a meaningful tool for learning through play. Participants left the program with a full basket of books and toys with tip cards on how to use them. “Play – or really parents and children playing together – is the very best way for young children to develop and grow and offers parents the opportunity to support their children’s development and see themselves as being successful in this role.” said Robin Meisner, Senior Director of Child Development at Boston Children’s Museum

 Each week the curriculum was different and focused on a new accessible play theme. One week, stations all around the playground were set with stacking cups, each with a different activity. Tip cards encouraged parents to make music with the cups by setting up a makeshift drum set and tapping them with small spoons or using them as a microphone and noticing the echo. Parent and child could also build pyramids of colorful cups to be knocked down and rebuilt. As families arrived, members of the Museum-Horizons team readily handed over the toys, and immediately engaged and encouraged parent and child to stack and play. Before long everyone joined in, parents, kids, group leaders were all playing together. Moms were making music with the cups and kids were dancing in the middle. Families who typically were trying to just survive were now having fun and playing together. 

“As we finished one of our groups, a mom said that this was her favorite time of the week. It was the one time she knew she could just play and enjoy her child,” said Gaines. This unencumbered time together is often a luxury and one that a child experiencing homelessness needs more than most. 

The vision for this engagement is to extract design principles that can be scaled and implemented more broadly. “Boston Children’s Museum and Horizons have committed to working together to co-create and co-deliver resources and programming. This means that we’re really experiencing our successes and opportunities for change together… in a way that’s making our learning stronger – and, hopefully, in turn, will make what we offer to families stronger, too,” said Meisner.    

The Museum and Horizons are working with Concord Evaluation Group to explore ways of evaluating the impact of the resources and programming they’re creating. After completing the playgroups, parents were asked to share their thoughts in a reflective survey. Early findings from two sites suggest that after attending at least one playgroup session, all parents felt more confident playing with their children and had fun during the sessions. Most felt it was nice to play together with other children and families and that they learned some new ideas and games, and even tried some of them on their own after the playgroups.

 “This was a wonderful first collaboration between our organizations. We were excited to provide parents and caregivers with the space, resources, and time to play with their children, something that’s not often available to those living in shelter. We look forward to what’s ahead,” said Tara Spalding, Chief Development & Marketing Officer at Horizons.

This piece was guest written by Molly Halpin, from Horizons for Homeless Children

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