Letting “Homeless kids” just be “kids”: The role of play in alleviating toxic stress

Happy Muslim woman embracing her small daughter in nature and looking at camera. Copy space.

Posted in Development and Learning Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Early Childhood Policy  |  Tagged , ,

by Early Childhood Interventions, September 26, 2016

Think back to when you were five years old. What was your home like? Where did you go to school? Who did you play with in your free time? Stereotypes about American childhood would lead one to expect the answers to those questions to bring back warm memories, and for many people this is the case. Childhood is a time to be remembered fondly, a time before life got hard. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are complicated for a growing number of children. Child poverty is on the rise, and with that comes an increase in children experiencing homelessness.  Children who are homeless become invisible to society—sometimes even their teachers are unaware of the situations their students are facing. The effects of homelessness on young children are well-documented. I will highlight some of them here, but the main purpose of this post is to talk about an under-utilized early intervention strategy that is being used at the DC General Homeless Shelter: the power of play.

Homelessness in the District of Columbia is a pressing issue. DC is in the top ten list of states with the highest percentage of children under six experiencing homelessness at seven percent (7%). This means that one out of every fourteen children under six in DC are homeless. The numbers are staggering—there are over 600 children living in the largest shelter alone, not to mention those living in smaller shelters, in cars, or other temporary housing (Dvorak, 2013). It is well known that the early years of life are foundational to brain development, and homeless children have been shown to experience developmental delays and disabilities more than other children their age. For more information on early intervention strategies for homeless children, there is an excellent post  on this blog about the issue.

While early childhood education and preschool programs are key to early intervention for homeless children, an area that is lacking in broader attention is the ability to simply experience childhood. Homeless children are forced to grow up fast. Parents and people who work with children experiencing homelessness express concern that those chidren are missing out on what is considered a “normal” childhood. When asked what her children needed most, one mother replied, “Play spaces. They need that room to play and just be kids. Not homeless kids. But kids” (Dvorak, 2013). Parents and specialists alike understand that play is not time off from learning, but a crucial part of the learning process. Through play, children learn social skills, communication, theory of mind, and gain a sense of belonging (ACT Government, 2016). Additionally, playtime can be an opportune time to observe children’s behavior and to detect signs of developmental delay in order to begin intervention as early as possible. Along with all of the other difficulties of homelessness, children experiencing homelessness have few opportunities for play. Shelters are not equipped for play, and more often than not the neighborhoods where homeless children live are not safe for play.

Here in DC, we are fortunate to be witnessing a movement to integrate play into early intervention. A groundbreaking program, the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project [HCPP], is opening up spaces for children to play under the supervision of caring volunteers. At DC General and several smaller shelters throughout the city, HCPP has established playrooms where for two hours a day, twice a week, children have the chance to just be kids. They can play in an unstructured environment without the stigma or misunderstanding they may face in the classroom. The serotonin released during play can serve as an antidote to high levels of cortisol produced under conditions of toxic stress (Dvorak, 2013). It also gives children the chance to develop positive relationships with adults—all volunteers undergo a background check and training to equip them to deal with the issues the homeless children face.

Parents and volunteers have offered much anecdotal evidence of the success of HCPP. I volunteered at DC General for several months and saw that it had a profound impact on many of the children I worked with. However, glowing reviews and celebratory newspaper articles are not enough. We need specialists and researchers to document the short and long-term benefits of HCPP. It is time to seriously consider play as an early intervention opportunity, and to figure out what works well and what does not. Only then can we know for sure whether play-based intervention strategies should be integrated into existing intervention strategies. Hopefully, a strategic plan for researching this program will bring it to the status of evidence-based practice. That way, other states can get funding to implement their own play programs for homeless children.


Benefits of Active Play. (2016). ACT Government. Government of Australia. Retrieved from http://www.health.act.gov.au/healthy-living/kids-play/active-play-everyday/benefits-active-play

Dvorak, P. (2013). For DC shelter’s 600 homeless children, a crucial source of fun and escape. The Washington Post. Early Care and Education for Young Children Experiencing Homelessness. (2014). National Center for Homeless Education. Early Childhood Homelessness in the United States: 50 State Profile. (2015). Administration for Children and Families.

McCoy-Roth, M., Marci, B., & Murphey, D. (2012). When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children. Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/publications/when-the-bough-breaks-the-effects-of-homelessness-on-young-children/

Claire Reardon (C’17)