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Outdoor program helps kids get a strong start in New West

School District 40 wanted to help parents who've been navigating the world of COVID with toddlers and preschoolers. Here's how.

For the raincoats-and-rubber-boots crowd gathered in Hume Park on this grey Monday morning, life during a global pandemic is all they’ve really known.

All the behaviours their grownups had to learn — mask wearing, physical distancing, limiting gatherings in indoor spaces — have just been normal life for these preschoolers.

But “normal” doesn’t mean “ideal” — and the New Westminster school district has stepped in to help local families who’ve been navigating the COVID world with under-fives in the house.

This is StrongStart: Explore Outdoors, an outside edition of the district’s early learning drop-in program for families with children aged zero to five. Families gather in Hume Park every Monday morning for stories, songs, activities and play.

It’s facilitated by early childhood educator Nicole Marshall, who greets families as they arrive in the park, offers toys, and interacts with kids on the playground before gathering the group for storytime and songs.

Activities vary by the week — a nature treasure hunt, a string measuring activity, an Easter egg hunt, crafts — but there’s always plenty of time for exploration, imagination and free play.

Marshall says her role is a supportive one: to support families in making connections with each other and to support kids in their own play. Those goals are all the more important as the world emerges from COVID, she says, because so many chances for kids and families to connect went by the wayside during the pandemic.

“It’s amazing how many children have just not been out and about,” she said.

Outdoor StrongStart spurred on by COVID-19 pandemic

Tanis Anderson, district vice-principal of early learning for School District 40, said the idea of an outdoor StrongStart program had been brewing in the district for awhile but was spurred on by COVID.

With health restrictions limiting the number of families who could access the traditional classroom-based StrongStart programs, and some families not being comfortable with indoor settings, the district saw a way to reach many more families by offering the program in an outdoor space.

Hume Park, with its large fields, playground, nature trails and convenient transit access, was a natural choice.

The greenspace was the draw that brought out Teresa Lee and just-turned-two-year-old Byron, who live right nearby.

“My kids are very familiar with this park,” she said.

Lee started attending StrongStart programs when her first child was a baby, and she enjoys the “semi-structured” approach to teaching and learning.

“It’s great,” Lee said. “It’s almost like forest school, but not.”

That “forest school” feeling is an integral part of the success of the program, Anderson says.

Anderson, a parent herself, remembers those early years of preschool parenting — and how much better the day went when her kids put on their rainboots and Muddy Buddies and ventured outside.

“They slept better. They ate better. They were just in a better mood,” she recalled. “Not all parents may realize the benefits of being outside with their kids.”

Plus, she points out, the program isn’t just helping the children.

“I often feel like StrongStart is just as much for the caregivers as it is for the kids,” she said. “Parenting is lonely. It’s the parents, the caregivers, who are really connecting with each other.”

Pandemic created a social deficit for parents, children

That has definitely been the case for Brittany Falcitelli, mom to Brooklyn, who roams the playground impatiently until her friend Ethan shows up. Falcitelli and Ethan’s mom, Melissa Parno, enjoy the chance to socialize just as much as their four-year-olds do.

For Falcitelli, it’s been a challenge to get her daughter, an only child, into settings with other kids. It was especially tough early in the pandemic, when, even in parks and playgrounds, people were hesitant to socialize with strangers.

“I’m a very social person, so I think that has been the hardest for me,” Falcitelli says. “During COVID, that was very hard.”

Ethan is also an only child, and Parno says she’s seen the difference since he’s been able to connect with other children. She’s taken him to plenty of other parent-and-child programs, too, but says the outdoor space at Hume Park is a favourite because it doesn’t require her active kid to sit cooped up indoors.

“It’s different. For him, he wants to be up and moving and going all the time,” she says.

Both moms say they’ve seen changes in their preschoolers’ communication abilities since they started coming to StrongStart.

“Her communication skills have developed better now in this environment,” Falcitelli says as she watches Brooklyn on the playground. “She needs this.”

Parno, too, says she’s noticed the difference for Ethan, who was just really starting to talk when the pandemic hit. His communication skills regressed for awhile, she notes, and the family got him onto waitlists for speech-language therapy. But he’s come a long way again in the past couple of months.

How COVID has hurt preschoolers' communication skills

That communication challenge is not uncommon. Andeerson said verbal skills are one of the developmental areas that have taken a hit because of the pandemic, for all kinds of overlapping reasons.

More children have been on screens for longer periods of time. Fewer children have been in daycare, preschool and other group programs. There’s been less interaction outside their own homes.

Plus, children spent two years without seeing the lower half of strangers’ faces.

“Everybody’s been masked,” Anderson pointed out. “Children haven’t seen smiles and frowns and facial expressions. Children are often more shy. They haven’t been able to interact.”

Even something as simple as sitting in a circle with other children to listen to a story is harder when you don’t do it regularly.

“We’re noticing it in our kindergarten classes. Teachers are spending a lot more time on routines that children used to come in to school with,” Anderson said. “There’s been an even stronger focus on social-emotional learning and independence.”

Helping shy toddlers coming out of their shells 

For the dozen or so children at the park today, being out and about with other kids is helping them develop some of those skills they’ll need in kindergarten and beyond.

There’s Ethan Liu, age two-and-a-half, whose mom, Claire Chen, has seen him blossom through both the outdoor and classroom-based StrongStart programs.

“Before he was very shy. Now he can say hi to teacher by himself. He can say hi to other kids instead of walking away,” she said.

She used to ask him in the mornings whether he wanted to go off to “school,” and he’d shake his head and say no.

“Now he says ‘Yes, yes!’” Chen said with a smile. “He will eat his breakfast more fast. He’s eager to get out the door.”

The added benefit for Chen is the development of language skills. They speak their mother language, Mandarin, at home, so coming out to the park with friends is good English practice for both of them.

She’s pleased he has such a good program to help set him up for school.

“I’m so happy we have StrongStart in New West,” she said. “Miss Nicole is really a good teacher.”

Mind you, the kids gathered around Miss Nicole to hear the story of Pete the Cat and his white shoes probably don’t care much that they’re learning.

And when they sing along to Five Little Speckled Frogs — concentrating very hard on counting on their fingers — and stomp enthusiastically along to If You’re Happy And You Know It, they may not be aware that they’re developing new skills for the future.

But their smiles and giggles say they’re having fun. And that, after all, is how small people learn best.

Want to know more about StrongStart?

The New Westminster school district website has a page offering information about StrongStart and other early learning programs.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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