Russia’s continuing assault in Ukraine has devastated the country and the lives of millions of its citizens. The youngest among them — Ukraine’s children — have been robbed of the ability to attend school and learn in a classroom, sitting next to their peers and friends.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. UNICEF estimates that more than 4.5 million people, primarily women and children, have become refugees in neighboring countries. Several million more are domestic refugees, with more than 50% of them children, forced to flee their homes to seek shelter in safer parts of the country.
The ongoing warfare in the country has already damaged over 1,000 learning institutions and destroyed over 100 schools, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science.
Inna Maksymenko and her team at ed-tech and gaming startup Keiki are particularly sensitive to the plight of Ukraine’s displaced children and their loss of access to education. Maksymenko is co-founder of the company she founded in Kyiv in 2019. Keiki makes both free and subscription-based educational apps (pricetag is $5.99 to $69.99) that feature cartoons for infants and learning games and puzzles for children between the ages of 2 and 5.
The startup idea, she said, was inspired by her mother who was a kindergarten teacher for many years.
“The world has changed and so many kids are on mobile phones now. We thought how can we then help them to use the phone to keep learning and get ready for when they begin school,” she said.
Prior to the war, Maksymenko said Keiki apps garnered over four million downloads worldwide and last year, one of the apps ranked among the top 5 free learning apps for kids aged 5 and under in Apple’s App store in the United States.
In early February, Maksymenko and her 42 employees, all based in Ukraine’s capital, were busy developing more math, logic, spelling and other games as downloads picked up traction.
Rumblings of a Russian invasion had created some tension in Kyiv, “but I didn’t want to believe it would actually happen,” she said.
If it did, she had set up a contingency plan: chartered buses that would take Keiki’s team to safer areas and temporarily accommodate them in hotels.
More than two months into the crisis, Keiki’s team, whose average age is under 30, has spread out all over Ukraine and has continued to work.
“We’re adding two new games at the end of May,” said Daryna Tarasiuk, who handles marketing for Keiki.
On March 1, Keiki made all of its apps and games free for all Ukrainian families. Since then, more than 8,000 families have downloaded the app, she said. The business has also hired five more people.
It’s a drop in the bucket of the hundreds of thousands of her countrymen, women and children who are living in tents, bomb shelters and basements. But it’s a start.
Tarasiuk said Keiki’s team is leveraging all channels of social media, influencers and word of mouth to spread the word to these families about its effort to bring some digital schooling to Ukrainian children.
“We’ve heard from parents with kids in shelters about how the games are keeping the kids calm,” said Maksymenko. “These kids have lost their normal childhood.” It’s also allowing anxious parents a brief moment of calm in a sea of chaos.
One of those parents is Katya Vandalovska, a 2D artist with Keiki who escaped Kyiv with her two young children, Lilya and Taras, on February 24. Valdalovska said fleeing Kyiv was psychologically hard for her children, who had to abruptly adjust to a new and unsettling way of life as they left behind family, friends and their schools.
The anxiety they felt, she said, was manifest in how their drawings have changed in the past few weeks. Instead of drawing cheerful images of the sun and trees, their drawings show tanks and military aircraft.
Valdalovska and her family have returned to Kyiv. She’s relying on the app to keep her children entertained while she helps Keiki’s team develop additional lessons to add to the app.
Said Maksymenko, “We are determined to help our people. Ukraine is a democratic, modern European country. We are in shock that we have been attacked but we now have a new purpose.”