How to Raise Happy Children in Kyiv or Real Story of One Mom

Almost every one of us at least once in our lives has heard this cherished phrase from mom or dad “You will understand when you have your children.” At a young age, expressions like these are perceived somewhat skeptically, but when we become a parent, we begin to understand ourselves.

How to raise a happy child? This question worries parents and constantly throws up new tasks and challenges. The star of our interview, Olesya Bozhko, is a mother of 3 children, a Kyiv businesswoman, and an educational reformer who also answered this question. Olesya will tell us about her formula for children’s happiness, which she embodied in an English-speaking space for children in the very heart of Kyiv – Playroom Kids Club.

Olesya, what was your childhood like?

I lived in the famous writer’s house on Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street in a family of writers. I went to a regular Soviet school and studied diligently. I really enjoyed learning foreign languages. Even then I began to dream of going abroad, working with other countries. Most of all, I wanted the world to be open to us, as it really is now. And so it happened.

Where did you study after graduating from school? 

I earned a degree in philology from Shevchenko University (Oriental Studies Department) – English and Persian languages. In my work I chose the one I liked, English, and accordingly focused on a European route. For a long time, I worked as a diplomat in the civil service in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and traveled a lot.

How did the idea to create an English-speaking space for children come about? What was the turning point?

When I got married, my husband was also in diplomacy, we went to the U.S. for his career. My two children were born there, and later the third child. In the USA, I was on maternity leave as a diplomat. We lived in San Francisco. Then I realized that I want to spend more time with children. I devoted a lot of time exclusively to my kids, but I consciously did it in such a way as to engage in self-development, actively contemplating everything happening around. I really liked how people in the U.S. work with children in libraries, kid’s clubs, on playgrounds. They communicate with kids on an equal footing, explain everything in simple language understandable to the child. Everything is said to children through available facts, without belittling, without legends and fairy tales. These things impressed me.

When my kids started attending kindergarten, an important factor for me was that they went there happy and came back happy. Sometimes, the children could be dirty, not in their socks, without jackets, but that was not the main thing. The most important is communication, a very positive format of education. All through games, conversations, books.

When it was time to return to Kyiv, I realized that I could hardly find such an institution there, although I really wanted my children to have a space like that. So I returned home with the idea that I would open my own. In the U.S., I really liked the format of children’s clubs. Mom or dad come with the child, spend time there. There are many different zones, centers, including cooking class, choreography, drama, play areas. That’s why I dreamed of creating just such a space, definitely English-speaking. My children were dominated by English. I set myself this task and put it into practice. In April 2013, we opened Playroom.

Tell us more about Playroom in 2013.

It was a club format. Children were brought for 1-3 hours to different classes. We had English, story time with art, cooking class, Picasso studio, choreography, and others. Communication was in English. We created an opportunity for the international contingent in the club. We were approached by children of foreigners living in Kyiv, as well as Ukrainian-speaking children whose parents wanted them to learn English by immersion.

What is your main goal?

I want children to understand that knowledge surrounds them everywhere, that gaining knowledge is not boring, but interesting. It is very important to maintain the child’s curiosity, which in childhood is at a very high level. Unfortunately, over the years it disappears due to monotony, boredom. Therefore, if a child is interested in something, it is necessary to develop it and create a favorable atmosphere for learning about the world.

How many institutions exist now and where are they located?

We now have two Playroom Kids Club kindergartens: the first is in the center of Kyiv at 45 Bulvarno-Kudryavska Street, the second is in Kozyn (Koncha Zaspa), not far from the city. Children study according to American educational standards and have good results.

How does the American format differ from ordinary state kindergartens in Ukraine? 

My goal was to create an educational institution that would be radically different. In the United States, working with children is based on a completely positive upbringing, which was very important for me. What does it mean? We support children in their spontaneity, freedom, desire to think creatively and unconventionally. We encourage this development in our classes.

Public kindergartens rarely pay attention to this, there is still a system of “don’t do”, “don’t touch”, “sit here”…  For example, if an exhibition of children’s artwork is held in a public kindergarten, they must be very similar, and you need to try to recognize the work of your own child. This can be done only by signing the picture. This is because there is a lot of teaching there, they take great care of the art so that parents like it.

Public kindergartens rarely pay attention to this, there is still a system of “don’t do”, “don’t touch”, “sit here” … For example, if an exhibition of children’s artwork is held in a public kindergarten, they must be very similar, and you need to try to recognize the work of your own child. This can be done only by signing the picture. This is because there is a lot of teaching there, they take great care of the art so that parents like it.

At Playroom, art exhibitions are children’s creations, their freedom in choosing the material, shape, color. We support them in this with all our might. At the same time, we teach structure, rules of teamwork and courtesy, because children need to know about personal boundaries and the ability to exist in society, to communicate with each other.

A psychologist works with both children and teachers. We also have trainings and work with mentors. We pay a lot of attention to developing psycho-emotional intelligence. There is a positive atmosphere in the space. Kids love it, they enjoy being in kindergarten. Parents often say that children go to kindergarten as a holiday. Teachers communicate with children on an equal footing.

Relationships are built so that teachers have authority and children listen to them, and at the same time, the child has an opinion, a position that can be expressed and heard.

Who are your clients?

Many children are from Ukraine, mostly from families who either travel a lot or are considering working abroad, in particular programmers, as well as foreign children whose parents work in the diplomatic corps or in international companies. Over the years, we have had clients from the USA, Canada, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, France, Poland, and other countries.

Who is your team?

Our employees are young ideological people, fluent in English, who share our institution’s values. Most of them are graduates of our English-language universities. I personally conduct interviews with my colleague, who is responsible for the methodological approach and quality control of teaching, in several stages. Native speakers also work with us. We have a positive young team that together implements our values.

How is the educational process organized?

We strictly adhere to the standards of American preschool education. These standards stipulate what the child should know at different ages. This is not only basic knowledge, it is also motility, psycho-emotional readiness at 2-6 years. Following these standards, we develop lesson plans. Classes should be interactive, interesting. The whole process takes place through games. We use quality educational materials. We fully purchase educational, logic, entertaining games from the United States and the United Kingdom and, of course, books. We spend a lot of time reading books (story time), discussing. Books are a very important part of our communication and engagement.

We position ourselves as an English-speaking institution. French classes are also held twice a week. Math and logic, literature, reading club, cooking time, drama class, art class, and others are a must. Children learn while playing and do not have homework. We also organize parties for the holidays: Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Backwards day, Inside-out day, pajama parties… They are no less important elements of our program. These days are extremely joyful for the children.

How do children from other countries and Ukraine get along with each other?

Wonderfully! It is always easier for children to find a common language than for adults. It is very important to have something that interests them, then they are happy to communicate, make friends. We create all the conditions for this. Staying in a positive atmosphere helps foreign children to adapt more quickly to the new environment.

How do you communicate with your parents?

We communicate via various messengers, e-mail. Our communication channels are always as open as possible. Parents can call us or write their questions. We make sure to send messages 3-4 times a week with information and photos of kids’ life at Playroom, events that took place. Also, our Facebook page reflects the life of our school. We also send newsletters telling parents who have taught their children and what happened during the month.

Is there an opportunity for parents who are interested to come to Playroom for a tour and to get acquainted?

Previously, before the pandemic, we could organize visits even during the school day, when children are present and lessons are being held. But now, due to health regulations, we cannot allow students’ parents or other adults who are not members of our team due to the risk of transmitting the virus. Therefore, we conduct tours at 7 pm or on weekends; we can arrange visits for 3-4 families. Our administrator conducts excursions or, if possible, I do. I will always be happy to answer parents’ questions and tell them more about Playroom. To come visit us, you should call us and we will agree on the date and time of the tour.

In this pandemic, the ability to travel has become limited. Parents are thinking about summer leisure for their children within Kyiv. What options for children are you offering during summer 2021?

Traditionally, we organize camps in July-August. Staying in the camp is not much different from our kindergarten. It is important that the camp is interesting, not monotonous, and diverse. Camps can be thematic. We also have themed days. We arrange a lot of active activities, excursions, and spend more time in the fresh air.

We invite children from 2 to 6 years old from other countries and Ukraine to the camps. If you haven’t been to us yet, this is a good opportunity to try. Your child will be able to spend time with educational benefits and fun in an English-speaking environment.

Do you consider yourself an educational reformer in Ukraine?

Yes. I’m creating a good alternative by borrowing best practices from the U.S. Of course, their system also has some errors, but I learned the best from what it offers. There are many such things in early education. Everything should be done with respect for the child’s individuality, acquainting the child with the world around by introducing elements such as science (chemistry, physics, biology) at the child’s level. After all, everything around us consists of these sciences. And we are confidently moving in this direction.

Do you feel the same strong desire and passion that you had in the beginning?

Even more! I have a lot of ideas; the question is to find time to implement them. Any obstacles, including this long period of pandemic, give me the opportunity to rethink and come up with new ways to make our format even more interesting, to improve it.

How should one talk to a child about the pandemic?

During this period, it is especially important to talk to children: to tell them the truth about the situation, not to intimidate them, but to explain that hygiene and certain rules are extremely important for protection.

What is your advice as a mother to parents?

The most valuable quarantine gift was the opportunity to spend more time with children. Moments spent together should be appreciated, because your child grows, develops, changes. And this day will never happen again. If you can’t devote 3 hours of your time, give an hour or even 20 minutes of quality attention, when you put aside your work and dedicate yourself to the child. Make a tent in the middle of the apartment, or build a castle, or read a book together, drink some cocoa – the child will appreciate and remember this time spent together. Your son or daughter will remember these moments with joy. For children, the true 100% presence of parents is important, even if it is short. As parents, we need to remember that.

The desire to make their children happy inspires parents to change the world. When you see joy in children’s eyes and a smile brighter than the sun, everything becomes possible. Olesya Bozhko confirms this with her experience and continues to unite and open the world of knowledge to children from different countries.

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