On Tuesday, August 18, 2015, KLRU took part in a White House convening around the ConnectHome initiative, the plan to provide low-cost/free high-speed connectivity in over 275,000 low-income residences across the US and on tribal lands. Austin has been selected as the mentor city for the project due to collaborations including the City of Austin, HACA, Google, Austin FreeNet, United Way for Greater Austin, and KLRU, among others.
KLRU’s role in the panel was to share our work on Play to Learn™, the United Way-led initiative that brings parents and youth ages 2-4 together for a variety of fun learning activities, including the use of digital tablets. Throughout the 10-week program, the families take home books and learning materials and upon successful completion of the program, they take home a digital tablet loaded with educational apps for the whole family. We utilize PBS resources to illuminate at-home learning experiences, including video from PBS Kids, apps like PBS Parents Play and Learn and Daniel Tiger’s Day and Night, and KLRU’s own Smart Screen Time®/La Pantalla Inteligente messaging. Play to Learn™ is a powerful example of the kinds of programs that can occur once a low-income community gets reliable and affordable access to the Internet.
Austin Pathways, Housing Authority of the City of Austin, KLRU-TV, Austin PBS, Austin Free-Net, Everyone On, and Google Fiber at the National #ConnectHome Summit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Austin Pathways
KLRU’s vice president of education, Ben Kramer (pictured on the far left above), represented Play to Learn™ at the conference. Below is a Q&A with Ben describing the Play to Learn™ program, what its effects have been, where he sees it headed in the future and what his role was at the ConnectHome conference.
Q: How did Play to Learn™ start?
A: Play to Learn™ was developed about five years ago. The United Way had done some research to try to determine where the greatest pockets of need were in the Austin area in terms of school readiness. Not surprisingly, they’re all in low-income zones, but they could go even deeper to say there are specific hot spots where 75 percent of the kids are entering Kindergarten not deemed “ready.” And “ready” doesn’t just mean academic skills, “ready” means the ability to follow group instructions, the ability to play nicely with others, the ability to hold attention to get through a developmentally appropriate activity as well as fine motor and gross motor skills, some awareness of letters, a concept of print, things like that.
In addition to funding quality childcare programs, what can we do? In these pockets, large numbers of families did not have their kids in sanctioned early childhood programs. They had their kids at home with them, or they had them in what we call informal family, friends and neighbors networks of childcare. Well, what do we do about that? And that’s how Play to Learn™ kind of got its start.
For years, there have been programs or workshops offered to families about how to foster learning activities at home, but number one, even when these are free, you tend to see an attendance drop. For example, we were trying to run six workshop sections, but we’d see attendance fall off a cliff after about three or four sessions. The other piece is that we were just then seeing the explosive growth of tablets in the early childhood arena. Given that the seed funding from this entire investigation and project had come from Samsung, United Way went to Samsung and said, “You know, we think we want to try to incorporate tablets.” And that’s where we came in. PBS Kids had shifted its strategies to focus more on the online and tablet-based world for early childhood games and video. So we joined them in the design of the Play to Learn™ curriculum, and in its general approach and outreach.
Q: How does Play to Learn™ work?
A: The program is 10 weeks long. The first and last sessions are tablet-oriented, where you commit to attend at least eight of 10 sessions in order to get the tablet, you’re committing to allow us to film and gather and use data. In the end, we sign over the tablets to the families. All the rest of the stuff in the middle is this pretty standard workshop model, where there are a variety of activities that are all designed to replicate what’s going to be their pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten experience but maybe more developmentally appropriate, and that are designed to get the kids and their parents interacting in the moment. That includes story reading, play with blocks, water colors, markers, puzzle pieces, toy cars — all the kind of stuff that you would see in an early childhood center, but the big difference is we’re asking the parent to let the child take the lead on those activities and for them to follow along and also for them to infuse a whole lot of dialogue, so it’s not just playing silently.
Also included are uses of media. We show clips from our own shows and from educational videos directed at childcare folks. We use the tablets every time, there’s at least one app that the families are asked to explore together that are related to the themes of that session.
Every week, the family goes home with a take-home bag which includes some of the manipulatives, the toys they’ve been giving to play with at home, and at least one book. And then at the very end of the session, they take home the tablet.
Q: How did your work on Play to Learn™ lead to speaking on a panel at the White House?
A: In the summer, we had just signed a contract with the United Way, based upon a grant they had received from the City of Austin, to provide Play to Learn™ in Housing Authority sites around the city, serving approximately 40 families at four different sites around the city. The first round of Play to Learn™ took place at Meadowbrook Housing, which recently opened, and the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, Joaquin Castro, was there in November for the grand opening of this new educational facility on the grounds. This summer, there was a HUD conference in Austin, and they went up to see the different programs in Austin, it wasn’t just Play To Learn. Austin FreeNet and Austin Boys And Girls Club both have programs there. Simultaneously, President Obama this summer went out to a housing development on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma to promote the ConnectHome initiative, which is their goal, before they leave office, to have all public housing in the United States hard-wired for high speed internet. This ConnectHome conference was what we were invited to in Washington.
The idea was that largely because of Google Fiber and Austin’s general pace of tech development and tech infrastructure, the work being done at that Meadowbrook site is in many ways a template for what the Obama Administration and others would like to see happening in these other sites and housing developments as they come online in the upcoming year.
We were asked to be on a panel to help answer the question, “You’re wired, now what? What can you do with that that you couldn’t do before?” In a way, it was interesting because the tenor of the conversation was about the work with the hard-wiring. Our work with the tablets doesn’t need a hard-wire connection, you just need a strong WiFi signal. So one of the follow-ups I had was to connect back to the conference leads to say, “That’s a very short time to get 275,000 hard-wired. Let me offer this as an alternative, if you can get a strong WiFi signal in your housing communities and you can go to tablet-based technologies, you’re able to tap into resources a heck of a lot quicker.”
Q: What have we learned from Play to Learn™?
A: Research was done on the first 200 families we served, and we saw some really positive outcomes. Attendance was through the roof, and at one level, we credit the tablet. But at the other level, that longer time period allowed us to build community, and a sense of collaboration and trust and the fact that these sessions are meant to be fun. They’re very lively, a lot of laughter, a lot of goofiness. When we follow kids, that’s what’s going to result. Some of the other research results were parents indicating positive trends in some of these very same school readiness qualities that we’re after. One surprising research result was an actual decline in parents’ depressive symptoms, and we contribute that to two things: that sense of community and the notion that they’ve heard this idea that you have to go into American schools ready, and this helps to shed a light on what that readiness really means. It doesn’t mean that your child entering pre-Kindergarten knows how to write their name. It means that your child can follow directions and sit still and cooperate and collaborate with others and be curious and explore. So, for all those reasons, we’re really proud of the work that we’ve done.
Q: What’s next?
A: Since that original study of 200, we’re now up to about 500 families served in the Austin area, and we’ve just signed contracts to serve approximately 100 families per year for the next five years. In addition, we’ve brought along some other partners who are implementing either the Play To Learn model as it was designed or they’re modifying it and folding it into their own curricula. The other thing we’re hoping to do is to explore making social media more interactive for the parents in the program.