The Local Life: New program prepares at-risk children

Voices from the Beaufort community

barbers@islc.netNovember 14, 2011 

A new program is helping prepare Beaufort County's at-risk children for school.

Play Partners, a kindergarten readiness program that equips caring adults to introduce at-risk preschoolers to books, was created by Children, Youth and Family Services in Charlottesville, Va., and has spread to Beaufort County.

In its second year here, Play Partners is a shining example of a little-known role of our United Way: convening partnerships -- in this case to help children succeed in school.

United Way of the Lowcountry brought the participants together and facilitates Play Partners as it expands to include more 3- and 4-year-old children. Current partners include Wardle Family Foundation, Beaufort County School District's St. Helena Island Early Learning Center, Beaufort-Jasper EOC's St. Helena Island Head Start Program, Penn Center's PACE (Program for Academic and Cultural Enrichment) Childcare Center, and University of South Carolina Beaufort Early Childhood program.

The premise: A trained coordinator trains volunteers, teachers and teacher aides to present a one-hour program four weeks in a row on the same book. Each weekly program includes reading the book twice and doing activities connected to the story. After four weeks, each student takes the book home to share with parents and siblings.

Book-related activities aim to help students master counting, colors, shapes, the alphabet and spelling their names as well as sitting to listen, retelling the story, singing songs and rhymes and following directions.

I went to Penn Center's childcare center with Play Partners coordinator Jim Glasson and volunteers Betty Chamlee Miller and Susan Fritts. We took along our copies of "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," our activity box and our art supply box (assembled by Glasson and USCB Early Childhood students). We had five 3- and 4-year-old children that day.

We started with a hello song. Everyone learned "Hickory Dickory Dock" using a paper clock face and counting the "boings" struck for each hour. The children sat in a row while Susan read the book and Betty showed the pictures. The second reading included discussion of counting and a Q & A on taking care of your books ("Mouse" will go home with each child next week).

Moving to small tables, each child received a paper clock and a stuffed mouse. Discussion of clocks and time was followed by work on shapes: The children chose shapes of "beds" (small boxes) for their mice, named the shape and found a "blanket" (construction paper shape) that would fit it, then put their mouse to bed.

The mouse in the book eats a cookie and drinks milk through a straw, so the snack was a chocolate chip cookie and milk with a straw. Then it was time for the goodbye song and the volunteers' promise to return next week with a book for everyone. The children obviously loved the program and the volunteers.

"Play Partners' success comes from caring adults who obviously love books, interacting with small groups of children who haven't had much exposure to books," Glasson said.

Unit cost for Play Partners is $111 per child per year. In 2011-2012, the local program will serve 240 3- and 4-year-old children. Funding comes from a Wardle Family Foundation grant and gifts from donors including Beaufort's Unitarian Universalist Church, Battery Creek High School's Interact Club and USCB Human Services and Early Childhood Education students.

The Wardle Family Foundation, begun by the late Rene and Bob Wardle in 1987 to help children and youth, is now headed by their son, Bill, who praises Play Partners. "With nothing more than a book and an activities box that relates to the story, an enthusiastic volunteer teaches a young child and makes reading fun, while preparing the child for kindergarten success," he said.

For more information about Play Partners, contact Clarece Walker, President of United Way of the Lowcountry, at 982-3040. To volunteer, contact Jim Glasson at 252-7999.

Marge Barber is a retired journalist, community volunteer and former Director of Communications for United Way of the Lowcountry.

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