I was out at Woodward Elementary School in south Richmond last week, and my main mission was to say hello to Principal Jane MacMillan and admire the school’s new playground. Jane then suggested we take a look at the StrongStart Centre at the school. Strong Start is a provincially funded program in some elementary schools that offers drop in learning activities for pre school children and their parents or caretakers. The idea is that adults can help their preschoolers learn through play, and that will give them a good start for school. The Centre was humming with small children their companions playing and learning together.
The place is coordinated by Angela Yodogawa and has some extraordinary play stations made of ordinary things. One little girl was arranging translucent coloured shapes on an overhead projector and she and her dad were admiring the different patterns this projected on the wall. In another area, an elevated sand table was filled with the husks of cocoa beans. I’d never given much thought to cocoa husks (any thought, actually), but these husks were amazing play material. Light, sturdy and textured, they smelled like chocolate and begged to be touched. As we were trying them out, a little boy, who was very tiny and had just learned to walk, strode over, or at least did the best stride I’ve ever seen on a toddler.
He looked up at us, grabbed a nearby plastic shovel and began to poke at the husks. He never took his eyes off us while he did this, as if to say, ” Nice of you to stop by ladies, but if you think you have any claim to these cocoa husks you’re sadly mistaken.”
The next day I was at Thompson Elementary, and principal Derek Cherry led me down to the StrongStart Centre there. I met a baby boy who was there for the first time. He was happily chewing on a plastic red plastic tube, and showing it to me between chews. Soon he’d moved on to playing with an abacus, and while I don’t think he was doing math with it, he’d graduated from chewing and was very busy precisely arranging the beads the way he thought they should be.
Speaking of math, a little girl about two years old was lifting small plastic balls out of a water tank with a scoop and putting them in something that looked like an egg crate. As she did this with her grandmother, she counted out loud – up to 12 – with perfect enunciation. While the counting was impressive, she was learning a lot more than that – such as the physics of things that float in water, eye hand coordination, and what 12 really looks like. At the same time she was having fun with her proud Grandma, so it was a win-win all around.
Thompson’s StrongStart Centre is run by Jindy Uppal. Jindy says there are regulars who come each day and the adults often become friends, which is a nice bonus. The real bonus of these centres is that kids learn through playing, and the adults learn how to help them through playing with them. It’s nice to be reminded that learning happens in these unscripted ways, and that it’s supposed to be fun. That’s an idea worth holding on to after kids are in school too.