Top minds in early education agree - play is no longer just about having fun. Instead, it is widely considered to be the building blocks for life-long learning and success, even before a child enters kindergarten.
"When you think about play, think about when you were a child and how fun it was to get out there and interact with your friends. What you don't realize is sometimes when you are in a pond, you are learning chemistry and you are learning about the environment. Then all of a sudden you are out on the playground and you are learning 'how far can I hit that ball?' You are learning math," said Maggie Lancaster, executive director for the Grand Rapids Children's Museum.
GRCM has teamed up with Grand Rapids Public Schools, and the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, to offer a pilot program this summer. It's called 'Purposely Playing Towards Kindergarten.' The goal is to help prepare kids who are about to enter kindergarten. That includes children with previous preschool experience and those without it.
"Yes. Yes, that is exactly what we are trying to do. All of these kids are about to enter into kindergarten. It is sometimes scary. Maybe they haven't interacted with many children. And, so we have the opportunity to give them a little sneak-peek of what it is like to sit next to a person for a period of time. Also, to show them what it is like to interact with a teacher. And, they can see what it is like to learn to play and learn through play," said Lancaster.
Matthew Beresford, director of Early Childhood for Grand Rapids Public Schools, says the district is excited about the partnership with the museum and optimistic about what they should be able to accomplish with this program.
"It is an incredibly exciting time. GRPS works to give seamless transitions to preschoolers going into their kindergarten year of learning. And this program, 'Purposely Playing Towards Kindergarten,' just supports that so sweetly," he said. "It just increase the experiences, over the summer, that these children need to have, so that there is no loss in learning and only an increase in their academic, social and emotional skills."
The free program is being offered at Burton Elementary to about 40 children entering kindergarten this fall. Those kids are exposed to hundreds of activities, inside two classrooms. Lancaster's team worked with teachers in the district to ensure the activities are as engaging as they are educational. And for an added bonus, each family with a student enrolled in the program gets free admission to the Children's Museum on Fridays.
"We have unbelievable assets in our community. Why not collaborate? Why not come together? Delta Dental provide snacks each day along with toothbrushes and toothpaste for kids to brush their teeth," said Lancaster. "We have people, like those at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation who put us all together. They are like the glue that helps support pilot programs like this."
Beresford says this type of effort is needed now, if ever.
"We know The State of Michigan expects more and more at a third grade reading level. So offering these opportunities, during the summer to support that goal, is just an equity piece," he said. "Not every child learns to read at the same pace. But, every child can read at a third grade level by the third grade."
Right now, the 'Purposely Play Towards Kindergarten' pilot program has been funded for one year. Both Lancaster and Beresford see room for growth. And, they hope to see it implemented at other schools in the district next summer.
"We hope so. We hope they will see that this is an incredibly important program for our children in our community and will support it in bigger and better ways in the future," said Lancaster. "We are getting the word out there and I think it will continue to snowball into a wonderful program."
The program is offered at Burton Elementary, Mondays through Thursdays through August 3rd. Those interested can still sign up by contacting Grand Rapids Public Schools at (616) 633-4538.
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