I could not have asked for a more thoughtful welcome to the Czech Republic. Disembarking the plane in Prague after my overnight journey, I was greeted by the Královec family bearing an American flag and sweet smelling purple flowers from their garden in Malejovice.
Jiri and Markéta Královec, the founders and directors of the Kliček Foundation, generously sponsored my visit to teach play techniques to hospital workers at several locations in their lovely country. I had the honor of teaching one seminar at Charles University in Prague. Founded in 1348, it is the oldest and largest university in the Czech Republic and Central Europe. I was also welcomed at the Mendelova nursing school in Nový Jičin. My students ranged from a mixed group of working hospital play specialists, nurses, teachers and social workers at the university, to young students at the nursing school (our equivalent of high school students). All of the students were bright and enthusiastic learners.
Work felt like play as we all rolled up our sleeves for some interactive lessons. I demonstrated loose parts work as well as activities to share with angry or withdrawn children, such as making volcanos and oobleck, as well as toilet paper targets. Participants asked great questions and shared some of their own stories of challenges they face in their work with children in hospitals. Their obstacles are similar to our own, but the profession is less established in the Czech Republic, so they struggle to advocate for very basic parent and child rights in hospitals.
Jiri translated my presentations as I lectured, a challenging job that he did seamlessly. Their son, Jiri, age 17, documented the seminars with his skillful photography.
Jiri and Markéta have a unique and pioneering vision of what children and families need when a child faces a serious illness. As young journalists over thirty years ago, they discovered the traumas of hospitalized children who were routinely separated from their parents and left to languish without proper attention or play opportunities while in hospital. Sights in Czech hospitals resembled what Rene Spitz observed in hospitals in the 1940’s.
Deeply disturbed and moved by what they witnessed, Jiri and Markéta began the first play program in the Czech Republic, and then created the Klicek Foundation to support their expanding work, which now includes a parent hostel, a year and a half-long certificate program for hospital play workers and a hospice and summer camp in the healing natural environment of the Malejovice countryside.
Jiri and Markéta have a different interpretation of the word “hospice”. It is not a place where children go to die, but rather a place for the entire family to enjoy respite from the everyday stress of the medical environment. As the Královecs noticed that parents rarely wish to be separated from their ill child, they created an environment that supports and cares for the whole family, so that parents may be with their child (and siblings too).
“We cannot add days to our lives but we can always add joy, friendship and love to our days.”
It is easy to imagine their renovated schoolhouse filled with activity and comfort as families are nurtured in this loving atmosphere. Indeed, my visit was filled with much joy and laughter (not to mention amazing home cooked meals) as I spent the week working and playing with Jiri, Markéta and their two teenage children.
Click here for a brief video snippet of an evening At home with the Kralovec family.
Many thanks to the citizens of the Czech Republic, the students, Jiri, Marketa, their children and menagerie of animals (16 cats, Mollie the Dog, pony, goat & donkey) for a restorative, learning, and growing experience.