Bernadett Eigner is introducing "community-based playrooms" in Hungary to promote early childhood development generally and, more specifically, to advance methods of play therapy for children with special needs.
The New Idea
Bernadett Eigner is providing, through "community-based playrooms," a play therapy community service especially for children with special needs and from underprivileged backgrounds. The playroom serves both as a free childhood development service for all, and as a locus for training kindergarten and preschool teachers in the playroom methods. By opening the playroom to the entire community and serving a previously unmet need for children's books, stimulating toys and progressive parenting methods, Bernadett is both promoting early childhood development more generally and "mainstreaming" children with special needs into "normal" family and community life. For parents and siblings of children with special needs, Bernadett's playroom offers the first sustained support system that they have known that focuses specifically on the challenges of being a family with special needs members.
Hungarian law requires that children with disabilities be mainstreamed into the Hungarian school system. Unfortunately, schools are unable or unwilling to implement this policy because of poor funding or prejudice.
There are very few opportunities in Hungary for the training and education of disabled children and their parents. Many of the social services, taken for granted in the previous regime, have rapidly disappeared as a result of the economic crunch of the transition in Hungarian society. Also, the underlying ideology of treatment and care for the disabled was one that fostered isolation and dependence within a system of large government-run institutions. The care provided in these institutions generally focused on meeting the basic human needs of food and shelter with little attention paid to the emotional or cognitive needs of the children. Sadly, with the collapse of Hungary's social net, even these institutions are closing.
As a result, parents are scrambling to find alternatives for their children. The most viable alternative to appear in Hungary has been community-based care, which provides low cost but high-quality care for children in a family setting. However, there are many obstacles and challenges to introducing this community-based alternative. Because of declining revenue and high levels of international debt, there has been a general cut in government funds for education. This has resulted in the closing of many preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools. The reduction in physical infrastructure and funds has made it more difficult to start projects to address the needs of special children. This is further exacerbated by the psychological barriers that Hungarians have toward the disabled. The majority of parents fail to see the value of having their children in the same classrooms as special needs children. Indeed, the concept of richness through diversity is foreign in the Hungarian psyche.
Bernadett is combating this through the introduction of play therapy, which is new in Hungary. Bernadett believes that the period up to five to six years of age is a very important time in child development, and development at this time is play, a fundamental human activity. For all children, especially handicapped children, it is important to receive the adequate means of specialized training within the family, and therefore, the family must be integrated into any training program. The programs that Bernadett has developed can significantly help locating and preventing learning disabilities of preschool children. Her pedagogical methods can apply to healthy as well as handicapped children. This fosters hope both within families and state-run institutions, whose teachers are also being trained by Bernadett, to broadly implement these curricula throughout Hungary.
Bernadett's play therapy center provides the basis for training and changing attitudes that are required for the development of integrated schools in Hungary. The essence of the "playroom" idea is to demonstrate by doing. Parents and children come to the playroom and play and learn together under skilled supervision. Stimulating toys and wonderful books and games are readily available and the best methods to use them are explained and demonstrated with loving care by trained volunteer parents. Teachers also come to the playroom to be trained in cognitive play therapy and also serve as volunteer playroom facilitators.
Bernadett established the first MIKKA MAKKA playroom in a disused army residential building in a poor downtown district of Budapest. "Getting permission from the army was a nightmare," says Bernadett, "but worth the effort, as the army has underutilized buildings all across Hungary that would be ideal spaces for more playrooms."
From the outset the playroom catered to the entire community. "One of our primary objectives is to break down the isolation of families with handicapped children," notes Bernadett. "You would be surprised how easily children of all capabilities play together, or how emotional it is for the parents of handicapped children to see their kids become part of a 'normal' play situation."
MIKKA MAKKA is free and open to all. At the same time, it stands for the very highest quality. Because the best cognitive toys are not made in Hungary (yet), Bernadett imports them from neighboring Germany. The playroom is laid out precisely by age, ability and activity. It provides counseling services to parents and grandparents, and, in addition to the trained volunteers, there is always a special education teacher in attendance.
For poorer families, MIKKA MAKKA provides access to toys and games that they would never be able to afford. Families can rent and take home the latest and best toys and games at affordable rates, another unique service in Hungary. Bernadett is exploring the development of a toy-making workshop as part of the growth of MIKKA MAKKA and a possible new livelihood for families with children with special needs.
Bernadett envisions her pilot playroom in Budapest as a model to replicate throughout Hungary. She is now convincing the relevant public and education authorities of the importance of the playroom approach to diagnose and prevent learning disabilities, thereby saving the state the high costs of remedial after-the-fact programs.
Bernadett is also working to spread her methods through teacher training colleges and the membership of the National Alliance of Organizations for the Handicapped. She offers her own training course for pre-school teachers, special education teachers, and college students majoring in education. Her module on play therapy is being integrated into the course curricula at teacher training colleges, as well as being taken up by preschools in contact with National Alliance members.
As a child, Bernadett was introverted and filled with anxieties. "This is why," she says, "as I grew older, I worked increasingly with other children to help overcome their shyness." In high school Bernadett loved to talk and play with children. She loved their innocence and how they viewed the world as a pure and magical place.
While at university, Bernadett met a wonderful psychology professor who influenced her a great deal with his caring and loving approach to teaching. Bernadett was trained as a special education teacher and wrote her doctoral thesis on the role of play in the early development of children with problematic cognitive development. She wanted to take advantage of her knowledge by setting up an entirely practical program for children. The Hungarian National Association of the Physically Disabled encouraged her to fulfill her desire for the playroom, and she established the MIKKA MAKKA playroom in 1994. All funding, organization and supervision of the Center is done by Bernadett. She is deeply engaged in the development of curricula and training for implementation on a broad scale and has a clear idea of how to multiply her centers. Her concentration on the involvement of the family is also crucial in her work.
She has received a great deal of attention for her efforts. Her centers are springing up all over Hungary and have spread to Romania. She is preparing now to launch her nationwide program and to further develop the package of services to families with disabled children. Bernadett says that much of her work has been inspired by her own children, Barbara and Valentine.