Story by Marianne Nguyen, Play To Learn Program Director
They call me “maestra” (teacher) but really I’m just a facilitator. Because it is them, the parents and caretakers, who do the hard work. They may not know this yet, but they have everything they need to be their children’s first teachers. While they’re already so busy running a house in difficult financial circumstances, they are also taking care of the basic needs of their young children and they still manage to make time to join us at our Play To Learn workshops. They are unmistakably there every week, ready to sing our songs, get down at kid level, and further their knowledge about parenting with other families of the community.
This week, my hat’s off to the 40 families who graduated from Play To Learn and, in doing so, earned a PBS KIDS Playtime Pad tablet.
KLRU is proud to host Play To Learn for the 6th consecutive year with funding from the City of Austin and additional support from the United Way for Greater Austin. This year, over 70 families graduated in the 6 groups we formed in areas of Austin where Kindergarten readiness is a critical factor for school success. The children who participate in Play To Learn are between 2 and 4 years old and are not signed up in any formal school or daycare. So for most of these kiddos, this is their first exposure to a “class” setting.
So what is Play To Learn exactly?
Play To Learn is about school readiness, about communicating the latest trends in early childhood (EC) education to those who need it most (60% of low income kids enter school not ready). It’s also about the smart use of screen time with little ones in these rapidly changing times. But most of all it’s about community.
Each weekly two-hour session follows a routine including a time for free play, a circle time, different centers every week to explore various early childhood concepts, a story time, a dance/movement component and an app to help further those skills. We spend a portion of each class working with the Playtime Pads that they will keep when they graduate. This allows them to familiarize themselves with the device and get support if needed.
The 10-week program is composed of 8 classes, one orientation session at the beginning, and a graduation at the end. In only 8 classes, we explore an exhaustive list of early childhood topics: Fine Motor Skills, Gross Motor Skills, Language Development, Early Literacy, Social-Emotional learning etc… and how those skills can be strengthened at home with very few resources. And the best part about these classes is that they are meant for both the child AND the caretaker. Each week, they get a take home bag with a book and basic materials for additional activities at home. And I even give them homework for the following week! It’s the beginning of a long relationship between school and home which we hope will remain healthy for years to come. But for some of them, it’s also a new way of looking at school and learning: it doesn’t have to be intimidating, difficult or boring. These families now know that the best way to learn is by playing and enjoying themselves together! The Playtime Pads that they take home at the end of the program come with a long list of educational apps from Sesame Workshop and PBS KIDS already installed. Therefore, if their child wants to use technology, they can be assured to always have a safe and educational option to offer them.
I must admit that I am amazed at the progress that can be observed in such a short amount of time. I have seen kiddos come to their first class hiding behind their moms and not even wanting to look me in the eyes. And after the first high five in second class, the metamorphosis to the time they graduate is incredible. When we say our goodbyes at graduation, they righteously feel so proud of their accomplishments and are ready to give me a big hug!
This proves the importance of early childhood learning. While a lot of children’s first exposure to an education professional usually occurs when they enter the public school system (typically at 4-5 years old), the latest research shows that it is between the ages of 0 to 5 that the human brain develops the most connections. And the exposure to positive human interactions during this crucial time has a tremendous effect on the quality of those connections. By playing, singing, reading, discussing with their young ones, these caretakers are doing the most important work for their children.
This is why I am so proud of the families who graduated from our workshops. We at KLRU are happy to be a part of their lives. We hope they continue to grow together as their child advances through their years in school, and that we will remain a trusted resource for them along the way. I wish these kiddos all the success in the world. They are already equipped with amazing support to get there!