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Virtual play groups the new norm at Smart Start

By Susan Shinn Turner
Smart Start Rowan

SALISBURY — Like many other organizations this year, Smart Start Rowan has learned to serve its families online.

One of Smart Start Rowan’s valuable resources is its Kaleidoscope Play and Learn groups.

The play group for 2- to 5-year-olds and their caregivers has been meeting online every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 11 a.m. with Ermalyn Jaeck, parent educator.

There were challenges at the beginning with operating the platform, but Smart Start Rowan provided a tutorial for families on how to log in. Smart Start Rowan serves families throughout Rowan County with children ages birth to 5.

“We also received a grant from the state where folks could get tablets,” says Laura Villegas, director of programs. “The tablets included hot spots. We had them available if families needed them.”

Jaeck also shortened the class length from 1 1/2 hours to 30 to 45 minutes.

“I share the key message of the week with parents while the children are playing,” she says.

She shares links to crafts that families can do at home, another component of the class along with free play.

“We want to share how children are learning through play,” Villegas says. “Our key message is the educational piece we want to see happen.”

Jaeck also shares the key message for each week on the Better Together Positive Parenting Rowan Facebook page. Families can find community resources here as well.

Smart Start Rowan still sponsors its Triple P — Positive Parenting Program — which is also now available online, and Jaeck can meet one-on-one with parents virtually to discuss what challenges they are having.

There are still no plans to reconvene the play groups in person yet, Villegas says. “There are so many unknowns. We just don’t know yet.”

A play group is shown via Zoom.

In February, Smart Start Rowan advertised free music kits for new play group participants, to be used during music time, according to Shurna Rabsatt, family support program lead. “We will continue to give away music kits in the coming months.”

In March, Smart Start Rowan began promoting its toddler class to accommodate families with younger children who want support and fun activities to do together during the pandemic, she adds.

Kaleidoscope families can come pick up materials from the Early Learning Resource Center although they still can’t enter the building.

If you and your family would like to participate in a play group or Triple P, you can contact Jaeck through the Better Together Positive Parenting Rowan Facebook page.

“I can connect with families that way right away,” she says. “Our focus continues to be on any caregiver who wants to learn about raising their children.”

“People have a lot they’re dealing with right now,” Villegas says. “We are happy to work with the families who want to participate in our programs.”

Families receive Baby Bucks for participating in each class. They can trade them for child-related items such as diapers, wipes, toys and books.

“It’s definitely a good resource for families,” Villegas says.

Jaeck helps families pick out items via FaceTime, or just gets them whatever she thinks they need, with their permission.

“Ermalyn does a really great job of connecting with families and building that rapport,” Rabsatt says. “The play groups are a fun, safe way for families to connect. It lets them feel they are not alone. In a time when people are isolated, they have somewhere to go online to do something fun with their children. We want families to know we are still there for them, even though we are not out in the community.”

Parent Avanee Patel admits she was skeptical about attending play groups via Zoom. She and her husband, Amit, have twins, Nishta and Param, who will be 4 in July.

“They weren’t used to sitting in front of a TV,” Patel says. “We don’t do screen time. But Ermalyn honed in on their personal interests. She began doing experiments with them. They are simple things that we have at home, making it a learning environment. It’s worked wonderfully.”

The children do play group two to three days a week. Patel says she loves the Baby Bucks and being able to check out items from the Early Learning Resource Center.

“It’s our toy library, which is perfect,” she says. “It’s such a reduction in waste and plastic.”

The Patels and their nanny, Hannah Addair, have also taken the Triple P class.

“At the beginning of the pandemic,” she says, “we struggled with keeping the kids engaged. We went through a period of lots of tantrums. We had a counseling session on how to make this work. It helped all of us set realistic expectations. We’re going to be sad when we are not a part of Smart Start.”

Families can attend one, two or three play groups each week. For more information about Kaleidoscope Play Groups or the Early Learning Resource Center, contact Ermalyn Jaeck through the Better Together Positive Parenting Rowan page on Facebook, or call Smart Start Rowan at 704-630-9085.

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