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St. Petersburg program teaches parents how to help kids learn

In a Pinellas classroom, families work with educators to close the development gap.
Ulas Butler, United Way Suncoast’s senior manager of early learning and family engagement, leads a 'Learn & Play' session.
Ulas Butler, United Way Suncoast’s senior manager of early learning and family engagement, leads a 'Learn & Play' session. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 12, 2022

The young engineer was building a bridge when the foundation cracked, the structure collapsed, and the engineer burst into tears.

His assistant remained calm.

“It’s OK,” she offered. “Why do you think that happened? How can we fix it?”

The supervisor — wearing a lilac sweatshirt with Elmo on the center — observed the interaction and smiled.

“That’s a good job, Ms. Autumn and Mr. Pharaoh. We’re problem-solvers here,” Ulas Butler cheered, before moving on to another corner of the classroom.

Related: There’s a child care crisis in Florida. Here’s why that matters.
Autumn Watson, 33, of St. Petersburg, helps her son, Pharaoh Anthony, 4 build a bridge using wooden ramps during a Campbell Park Network for Early Learning program in St. Petersburg on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.
Autumn Watson, 33, of St. Petersburg, helps her son, Pharaoh Anthony, 4 build a bridge using wooden ramps during a Campbell Park Network for Early Learning program in St. Petersburg on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

For the last year, Autumn Watson has brought her 4-year-old son, Pharaoh Anthony, to this classroom at the Campbell Park Resource Center on 14th Street S in St. Petersburg. They participate in the Learn & Play program led by Butler.

The activity, which brings parents and their toddlers together once a week, is part of an effort by the United Way Suncoast to improve learning outcomes for Tampa Bay youth, by teaching parents how to help their children learn at home.

It’s one of many offerings through the Campbell Park Network for Early Learning, a comprehensive effort that also provides professional development and coaching for early learning educators at South St. Pete childcare centers.

Research shows that the first five years of a child’s life are some of the most critical for development. About 90% of a child’s brain develops during that period, according to research from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

But it’s also a time — before children enter the school system — in which parents have the least support.

“If you’re not talking to your child, if you’re not helping your child learn and grow and become familiar with language in those years, then when they enter kindergarten, they’ll already be at a disadvantage,” Butler said. “That’s why we’re here. To make sure our kids are prepared.”

About 41% of children entering kindergarten in Pinellas County were unprepared during the 2020 school year, according to data from the state Kindergarten Readiness assessment. In Hillsborough County, it was nearly half of incoming students.

Butler, who is a specialist in early childhood education, said that makes a difference for the child’s future learning outcomes, which is why getting infants and toddlers educational opportunities early on is key.

But it’s an uneven playing field.

Ulas Butler speaks with families at the end of a 'Learn & Play' session at the Campbell Park Resource Center in St. Petersburg on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.
Ulas Butler speaks with families at the end of a 'Learn & Play' session at the Campbell Park Resource Center in St. Petersburg on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
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Early childhood care can be expensive — “the average annual cost of child care for a toddler is greater than the annual cost of tuition for a University of South Florida student,” according to analysis by the United Way. And a lot of parents are unaware of the importance of play or lack the resources and training to help their children grow.

“You don’t need a certificate or permit to become a parent,” Butler said. “We want to help our parents help their kids.”

That’s the motivation behind Learn & Play, which is held at the resource center four times a week, and is free to parents who enroll.

Once a week, parents bring their children to the center for a 90-minute play session. At the beginning, Butler takes time to introduce a new strategy for parents or to model behaviors for the kids.

Then, there’s an hour of free play, when parents and kids move around the classroom together however they choose.

There are building magnets and science kits, a rock climbing wall and gymnastics mat. There’s a reading corner, equipped with a book shelf stuffed to the brim. For the kids, it’s like being at Chuck-E-Cheese. But each activity is centered around learning.

During free play, Butler, moves around the classroom too. He observes the families, jumping in and modeling strategies from time to time. He teaches the parents how to respond to outbursts or how to help engage and elongate a child’s attention spans.

Samir Haugabook, 2, plays at the Campbell Park Network for Early Learning program in St. Petersburg on Nov. 14
Samir Haugabook, 2, plays at the Campbell Park Network for Early Learning program in St. Petersburg on Nov. 14 [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

One of the biggest themes is communication — getting parents to talk to the kids, ask questions and redirect with language.

Shainese Hunt, who attends learn and play with her 2-year-old son, said the program has given her confidence as a parent.

“When we walk into the grocery store, I know how to handle the tantrums, which we rarely have now,” Hunt said. “But when we do, I know what to do, because I revert back to what’s happening here.”

Watson, who was building the bridge with her son, Pharaoh, said she has learned to control her yelling.

“(He) used to be all over the place, I could never get him to sit down or listen, but I’ve learned to be patient and ways to help him mellow,” she said.

Watson, who has 5 other children, said the support from Butler has been life-changing for her and her children.

Pharaoh Anthony, 4, and his sister, Goddess Anthony, 5, play together. Parents bring their children to the center for Learn & Play sessions, which encourage brain development and improve school readiness.
Pharaoh Anthony, 4, and his sister, Goddess Anthony, 5, play together. Parents bring their children to the center for Learn & Play sessions, which encourage brain development and improve school readiness. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

She had her first child when she was a teenager, and said she wishes programs like this would have existed back then.

“I just encourage families to come, especially teens,” said Watson. “A lot of the things we do here, we can do back at home. It’s more than kids playing, it’s a learning experience for everyone.”

As Watson spoke, Pharaoh laid a new track for the bridge.

This time it didn’t fall down.

• • •

Tips for parents of young children

1) Talk, talk, talk. Babies develop language skills through exposure to conversation. Even before infants are able to respond, it’s important to speak to them often.

2) Prolonging a child’s attention span takes work. See if you can get your child to focus on one form of play (maybe it’s Play-Doh or Legos or a book) for an extended period of time by engaging the child with questions and observations about the activity.

3) Try to redirect your child if they are acting out rather than harshly disciplining. And remember that it’s OK and normal for a child to have difficult moments. Stay patient, keep calm, keep working.

For more information about early learning initiatives, visit: https://unitedwaysuncoast.org/what-we-do/education/campbell-park-network-for-early-learning/ or reach out to Ulas Butler at ubutler@uwsuncoast.org or (727) 274-0997.