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Eager Learners: Earl Boyles Serves Infants and Toddlers in Play and Learn Program

“Put your shaker on your nose, on your nose!” A dozen parents and caregivers, gathered in a classroom at Earl Boyles Elementary in southeast Portland, sing along together, encouraging their children to touch their egg-shaped shaker-instruments to their noses. Many of the toddlers are engaged in the activity, while babies listen and watch their parents perform the action with fascination.

A room full of infants, toddlers and parents at an elementary school may seem unusual, but it’s the new normal at Earl Boyles, a site of the Early Works initiative. Early Works partners at Earl Boyles have previously launched a preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and are now turning their attention to providing programs for families with even younger children. The group has gathered weekly all spring to play and learn together with the guidance of facilitators. More than 30 children have participated.

Research shows that the first three years of life are a critical window of development. Reaching families early with services and support puts children on track for school and life success.

group photoHigh-quality play and learn groups are a proven strategy to do just that. The play and learn group at Earl Boyles follows evidence-based quality practices by offering fun educational activities that can be done at home, ideas for transforming everyday activities into learning opportunities, and guidance around early childhood developmental milestones.

The facilitators – Early Works site liaison Andreina Velasco, play and learn program consultant Ginger Fink, and Earl Boyles parent Macy Kuang – launched their group to provide all these tools to families with children birth to age 3.

Moreover, the group serves to welcome young families into the school, tying directly to Early Works’ goal for the school to be a community hub for all families.

“Our goal was to make families very comfortable… and build relationships,” Fink adds. “We want families to be so comfortable at school it’s like a second living room.”

Ultimately, building relationships with families beginning when a child is very young makes the transition to kindergarten easy and seamless. For children, the school environment is familiar and for families, trust in the school has been established. For teachers, a child’s developmental progress is already known and any necessary support can already be in place.

A number of key factors were built into the plan for the group to ensure its success.

For example, an important consideration for the facilitators in planning the Earl Boyles play and learn group was ensuring it was culturally appropriate for families in the community. To this end, all of the group’s activities are conducted in three languages – English, Spanish and Chinese. The involvement of Kuang, a Chinese parent, is a critical component of expanding the group’s cultural relevance.

Baby Leo web“Having Macy as the co-facilitator is a really great way for us to build our capacity and cultural knowledge of the Chinese speaking families in our community,” says Velasco.

Kuang says that in addition to helping facilitate, she wanted to be involved for her 2-year-old daughter. “I want her in the play and learn group so she can learn English, she can learn Spanish, and also learn Chinese.”

Research shows that language development happens at an explosive pace during a child’s first three years. The group’s trilingual approach takes advantage of this developmental window, allowing participating children to hear sounds and learn words in multiple languages.

Another consideration was including the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, or ASQ, as part of the program. The ASQ is a developmental screening tool for young children. It is easy for parents and caregivers to use to determine whether their child is on track developmentally as well as to identify and address any delays or gaps as early as possible. The screenings are available for parents to conduct while they play with their child.

“It’s really neat because it’s really valid. You see it happening,” says Fink. “If a question asks, can your child stack blocks, go play with the blocks and you’ll know.”

Because of the variety of partnerships Earl Boyles has formed with service providers in the community, the play and learn group has a mechanism in place to refer families to services and support programs if they have concerns or detect delays.

The program’s impact is easy to see when you attend. “Every week there’s a success story,” says Fink. “By pointing out to families that there’s a marker of development, or something exciting is happening with a baby, or all of a sudden a child who wasn’t saying any words three weeks ago babbles away. For us, that’s remarkable stuff.”

The families, too, feel that the program has had impact.

Bulla Chong Kainoa brought his son to the group to help him prepare for preschool in the fall. “I like that they teach my son gross motor skills and he’s able to learn how to be with his peers. I like how attentive the teachers are and you can tell that they care about the children.”

Candice Beard’s 2-year-old daughter spends much of her time at home socializing with her older brother who is four-and-a-half. “This group gives her a lot of exposure to babies who are her age and socialization with younger kids than she usually plays with,” she says.

At the end of May, Earl Boyles hosted its youngest graduation celebration yet for 12 infants and toddlers. Each family received a certificate and a gift bag full of activities and books. But the children’s favorite gift was balloons, which immediately captured their attention. As each family came up front to be honored, Velasco shared the developmental milestones that their children achieved during the program.

Plans are underway for next year, and the facilitators are working to ensure the program at Earl Boyles is sustainably run and funded. They also have advice for other schools or communities interested in launching a play and learn group to reach young families.

Velasco emphasizes how important it is to leverage talent already in the community by including a parent co-facilitator. “It builds cultural and linguistic capacity and it’s really wonderful to have an inclusive, intercultural space,” she says.

“Gather your energy, look for resources, find yourself some colleagues out there and start your own program,” says Fink. She recommends the National Women’s Law Center as a fantastic resource.

Elsa and son webHigh-quality play and learn programs like this one are an effective way to build relationships between schools and families, provide parents with skills and ideas for teaching their children, and improve children’s kindergarten readiness and school success.

As Elsa San Juan, who participated with her 1-year-old son, puts it, “It is more than a game for kids, it is for a child’s learning so that they can strengthen and grow.”

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