In the pre-pandemic era, over the course of a year the Greentrike organization’s Play to Learn outreach program served tens of thousands of people across 23 regional sites, including the Key Peninsula Civic Center in Vaughn. The grant-funded early childhood education program is now being offered virtually over Zoom, including thematic circle time, project-based activity time, pajama time and STEAM-focused lessons.
“It gives us such a safe way to interact with other kids when in-class preschool is not an ideal situation,” said parent Taylor Rydell.
Since 2008, Play to Learn has offered cost-free, drop-in educational programs that encourage children and adults to play and learn together.
“We’re trying to design everything to support learning through engagement, fun and play,” said Teacher and Program Coordinator Cheryl Jones. “It’s child-led, child-centered, and our motto of honoring children and championing play is really how we try and show up at all times.
“We were so excited to be out on the KP,” Jones said. “When my two older kids were in preschool they had a teacher who was an institution out there on the KP, Andrea Jewell, and she was really my inspiration.”
Before COVID-19, the Play to Learn team would arrive at the civic center early to unload their van and set up art tables, a sensory station, an array of colorful carpets and large totes filled with blocks, balls, stuffed animals, books, toys, musical instruments, bubbles and a giant rainbow parachute. Around lunchtime, they’d pack up and drive away, then return to do it all again a few days later.
Play to Learn looks very different online, but the children laugh, play and thrive there too.
“I’ve been so impressed by how the kids are learning to be in this (virtual) space. I’ve seen growth and progress,” Jones said. “They love talking and dancing and being spotlighted. I’ve been so proud of the kids and how well they do.”
In October, they delved into dinosaurs, emotions, fall leaves and geometry. In November, the focus will be on healthy bodies, insects and the jungle.
Jones, who has been with Play to Learn since 2012, straddles a line between teacher and entertainer as she sings, dances and shares words of wisdom, holding the children’s attention and facilitating their participation throughout each 30-minute Zoom session.
Standing in her home in front of a colorful, hanging quilt during a recent circle time, Jones looked into the eyes of the children through her camera lens and said, “Even in this virtual friendship space we are practicing so many friendship skills. Learning how to listen to one another and pay attention to each other, and how to listen to me and pay attention to me, and take turns with what you want to say and what you want to share, those are all such good friendship skills that we’re learning right now by sharing this fun time with one another.”
During activity time, kids work on a project using supplies most families have at home. One week they made dinosaur masks, then sang a dinosaur song and danced, stomped around and roared into the screen as dinosaurs.
“My favorite part of the Play to Learn program is how much Amelia learns from their craft projects every week,” said Meghan Callaway of Lakebay. “Her favorite thing so far has been the pajama parties. She loves to sing the brush your teeth song nightly now.”
Although the virtual program has its success stories, Play to Learn is not reaching nearly as many families as it used to.
“We’re reaching out virtually but for those folks who don’t have access to the internet, they don’t necessarily know,” Program Director Charleen Balansay said. “The environment as much as the people in a child’s life builds and nurtures their whole being, so that’s the tough part. That’s the hardest part. That really strong sense of your neighborhood community and those connections that you make, those friends that you make in those natural ways is what I miss.”
“I miss hand stamps and the whole, full richness of the tactile. I even miss carrying boxes and the outlet of the physical activity to keep my bones from turning to dust,” Jones said. “We all go through a lot of feelings in our day about what’s going on in the world.”
In a tone reminiscent of Mister Rogers, she added, “Know that whatever you’re feeling right now, it won’t be a forever feeling. And I like you just the way you are.”
For more information, go to https://playtacoma.org/play-to-learn.