27 February 2019

How One Woman Is Giving Every Child The Right To Play

When Impact Hub Istanbul member Gozde Sekercioglu first came up with the idea for Önemsiyoruz, there was no telling what kind of impact her project could have. But with a little help from fellow innovators in and out of the Impact Hub network, she bridged the gap between governmental institutions and personal growth, starting from inside prison walls…

What is Önemsiyoruz?

Önemsiyoruz, which means ‘We care’ in Turkish, is a social initiative raising awareness about (and providing access to) children’s fundamental rights. Founded by Gozde Sekercioglu in December 2015, the organization works to strengthen both the perception of children as individuals, and the bonds they establish with their environments.

Their project ‘An Armful of Toys’ meets the special needs of children at age 0-6, living in prison with their incarcerated mothers.

How did it start?

Gozde was part-designer, part-childcare volunteer when the idea for her company first came to her. While working in Turkey with children who were incarcerated along with their mothers, she realized that these children actually had very limited access to toys. Most importantly, she realized that she could do something to help.

She began creating toys that were explicitly designed to be allowed inside prison walls.

After conducting a lot of research, Gozde brought together an interdisciplinary group of 40 volunteers including designers, teachers and psychologists, to design toys that supported children’s cognitive development, creativity and productivity. Their first product? A play kit called An Armful of Toys…

An Armful of Toys

With very few words and a lot of imagery, An Armful of Toys is a very thoughtfully designed play kit that carries no trace of any political, cultural or religious influence. Tailored to the prison’s requirements, it includes 2 soft balls, information cards and a playmat.

With vibrant colors and sounds, the soft balls support children’s motor skill development and hand-eye coordination. They can be used to teach numbers, colors, basic information about nature and animals, and support children during their crawling periods. The variety of textures and color differences in their designs also increase the children’s sensory awareness.

The playmat provides a personal playing area, designed to support a child’s daily life. The information cards probe questions such as; What will I do with the play kit? What’s the benefit to me and to my child? How will I play with my child when she/he is at a different age? The answers that mothers give then contribute to building an experience based on reciprocal learning between the child and adult. Through the play kit and educational content, the child experiences learning through playing with their mother in collaboration with the social worker and prison psychologist.

How are these toys made?

The fabrics and prints used in the kit are made without using any water, and each one is handmade by cooperatives focused on women empowerment in Turkey. During production, Önemsiyoruz works with women in vulnerable circumstances to help them generate income for other vulnerable groups, believing that ‘givers create givers’.

How were these toys put to use?

In 2018 as part of a talk on anger management, the kits were brought into a prison in Gaziantep, South-East Turkey.

The first people to receive these toys were 28 mothers; 8 of whom had their children living inside prison with them, and 20 of whom had children growing up beyond the prison walls. Gozde’s group worked with each of them to understand their needs and restrictions, and as a result developed a 12 week guiding program to aid incarcerated mothers. From there, Gozde’s next step was the Ministry of Justice.

From idea to impact

It was here that Gozde met with the prison’s lead prosecutor and State Attorney, arguing as to why An Armful of Toys was so badly needed in Turkey and why she deserved the chance to implement its pilot project. By November 2018, the pilot was up and running.

Now, every week in the prison, 3 expert volunteers run 2 hour workshops exploring creative outlets including art, design and music while collecting feedback for impact measurement. By placing huge value on listening and observation, Gozda’s team encourage the mothers to give feedback in person, making sure to include all opinions, regardless of literacy levels. Önemsiyoruz is still quite young, but it’s already brought 56 toys into Gaziantep Prison.

But the organization doesn’t want to stop there.

Since then, the team has also started to use these toys as catalysts of wider change; using them as foundations for gamification workshops and music therapy sessions inside the prison. By mid-November 2018, the organization reached 15 different mothers, 17 children (from newborn to age 6) and more than 15 prison workers who are also parents. And they’re planning to reach more than 80 women by the end of the pilot program.

Lessons Learned

1. It’s not just about the children

Most often, multiple women and children are placed in the same areas within the prison, and of course the children look up to these women and learn from their interactions. Supporting children’s development is also about helping other mothers build healthier relationships amongst each other. Toys should not only enhance mother-child relationships but also the relationship among mothers.

2. Toys shouldn’t be played in solitude

Children learn from interactions, and because of this: mothers and prison workers’ participation to play time is key. Toys should be designed for multiple players allowing different stakeholders to participate.

3. Age and education level is not the same for everyone

Every child’s cognitive and intellectual development is different, but in prison they learn and play together. Toys should be designed with multiple layers to accommodate different needs.

What’s in store for the future?

To date, the organization has worked with more than 140 women and 120 children, and have collaborated with more than 25 companies and 10 NGOs. On top of that, through crowdfunding campaigns and volunteer work, Önemsiyoruz has been supported by more than 1,000 individuals. Gozda now plans on expanding the program to new prisons and families throughout the country and perhaps one day, even further afield.

Önemsiyoruz’s work contributes to the following SDGs: