credit: Playtime Project

On a weekday evening in December, families crowded at the door of the Quality Inn ballroom, waiting to sign in their children. Scattered across the floral-print carpet, kids were playing. Some played with other kids, some with toys, and others with their adult supervisors. They had to make the most of a short hour-and-a-half because they only get to do this twice a week. 

This is what playtime looks like for children of families in temporary shelters in Washington, D.C. For these children, playtime is an event, not an abstract concept of fun. It has a place and time. 

Playing is an undeniably important part of childhood. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development and well-being of children. But children from families experiencing homelessness may not have the opportunity to play. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project has been changing that for families in temporary shelter. 

Back when it operated out of the now-shuttered D.C. General family shelter, Playtime Project had rooms for separate age groups and enough space and toys that all children that attended could be accommodated. The Playtime Project began working in the city’s family overflow shelters — hotel rooms rented in bulk — in 2017.  

[Read more: Hundreds of volunteers transform family shelter for teens] 

In the overflow shelters, lack of space is a primary concern. Jamila Larson, executive director and co-founder of the Playtime Project, remembers when she saw two children fighting over a limited number of building toys. It culminated when one of the kids tried to stab the other with a toy. Something like that would not have happened at D.C. General, where the program had enough space to provide for the children that needed it, Larson said. 

Playtime Project fully supported the closure of the dilapidated D.C. General family shelter. The organization must now adapt and figure out how to fund more programs at a smaller scale in order to serve approximately the same number of children. 

Space challenges notwithstanding, the nonprofit has been making do. Their new “pop-up playtime” model being used in the overflow shelters is working, according to the organization’s communications coordinator, Melanie Hatter. “We’re figuring out how to recreate playtime to continue serving the children. Ultimately, we’ll always go where the children need us.” 

[Read more: Overflow shelter guests feel unwelcomed by shelter staff and city services] 

Larson emphasized that the kind of service Playtime Project provides should be integral to any program that tries to help children. “You’d never dream of starting a program for homeless veterans that ignores PTSD,” Larson said. “Aren’t these children just as deserving of services as a homeless man or woman?” 

New short-term family shelters have opened in Wards 4, 7 and 8, with sites in Wards 3, 5 and 6 expected to open in late 2019 and 2020. “We have our fingers crossed that we will be able to work with the new shelters,” Hatter said. But the shelters in Wards 4 and 8 do not have adequate space to accommodate a standard playtime event.  

Larson said Playtime Project is in talks with personnel at the Ward 7 shelter to begin a playtime at that facility. “When the future [shelters] open,” Larson said, “we’ll visit and see if any of them are good fits as well.” 

[Read more: The first three D.C. General replacement shelters open] 

At any given playtime event in the hotels that serve as overflow shelters, 20 kids may be running around the room, alternating between playing with toys and pretending to fly with the help of Playtime Project volunteers. They laugh and scream. At the same time, their parents are taking care of things that would be difficult to do with young children around. Whether they need to catch up on rest or attend an important meeting with a case worker, Playtime Project lets adults have a chance to breathe. 

The organization was founded in 2003 by Larson and an attorney, Regina Kline. Larson toured the Community for Creative Nonviolence shelter at 2nd and D Streets NW and saw children in the facility living in poor conditions: “rows of metal bunk beds, sheets for doors, rat holes, no bathroom soaps, and not a single toy in sight,” according to the Playtime Project’s website. “I asked, ‘Doesn’t anyone donate toys?’” Larson recalled. “They said, ‘Yeah, sometimes, but we keep them locked in a closet so the kids don’t make a mess.’”  

That was when Larson and Kline realized it wasn’t going to be enough to donate toys. “We literally needed to donate ourselves and advocate for child-friendly spaces in shelters,” Larson said.  

Since then, the Playtime Project has operated in 12 locations. The nonprofit currently hosts events twice a week in two transitional housing programs and three city overflow shelters, located at a Quality Inn, a Days Inn and the Hotel Arboretum.  

The children the Playtime Project serves have faced many traumatic situations. “Being able to see these kids, knowing all the stuff they are dealing with, come into the room and just let go of that and play is huge,” Hatter said.  

The group’s experience at different overflow shelter sites has varied. At the Hotel Arboretum, staff members were able to negotiate the use of a second room so children ages 3-7 could have “free play” in one space while the bigger pre-teens, ages 8 – 12, participated in more structured activities. The organization was also given room for a baby-specific program on another floor. 

A second space for children under three was also recently added at the Days Inn overflow shelter. 

A young girl plays doctor in the Quality Inn ballroom with a Playtime Project volunteer. Photo courtesy of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project

However, at Quality Inn, kids of all ages are relegated to the hotel ballroom. While the space is large, shelter residents haven’t been allowed access to the nearby restroom since August, 2018. Playtime Project began hosting twice-weekly playtimes at Quality Inn in 2017 and made a request for more space — similar to the arrangements made at Hotel Arboretum — to accommodate the different age groups of attendees.  “What hasn’t worked is serving toddlers learning to walk with rambunctious preteens all in the same room,” Larson wrote of the situation in a July blog post. 

Axar Management, which runs Quality Inn, offered to make the additional space available for the nonprofit rate of $500. Shortly afterward, the bathrooms near the hotel ballroom were locked, according to Hatter, and Playtime staff members were told the bathrooms needed maintenance. However, over the next several months Playtime personnel found the doors occasionally unlocked and the facilities in working order. Yet they were still off limits to Playtime participants in the last week of January. 

Street Sense Media observed the locked bathroom doors during a site visit in November but has not independently verified the condition of the facilities within.  

“These families are disrespected in so many ways. And the children, specifically, are often left behind,” Hatter said. “We do what we can to fill the void of their unmet needs, and something as simple as having access to a bathroom becomes a stumbling block. There’s still no bathroom access for Playtime.” 

Playtime Project uses trauma-informed programs that “seek to restore normalcy by providing opportunities for children to learn and heal through play, as well as empowering them to make choices, express themselves, relate to others, and find support,” according to its website. 

The children get the opportunity to choose what they engage in. Homeless kids don’t have the same autonomy as other kids, according to Hatter. They are often pulled this way and that based on what their parents must do to meet the family’s basic needs. By exploring the roles of astronaut, cashier, or princess, they learn who they are. They develop self-awareness, learn how to control their behavior and understand their emotions.  

 Through all those other outcomes, Larson holds one as the most important. “We never want to lose sight of joy,” she said.