SHERIDAN — The room at Highland Park Elementary School filled with the sounds of children: laughter, song and occasionally crying. Some kids colored underneath a table, while others played with blocks or marbles.
The scene is a fairly common one across schools and day cares, except in this case, all of the toddlers were accompanied by parents. The family activities are part of Kindlers, a year-old program to support and prepare families with kids not yet in school for organized education.
Kindlers is the creation of an early childhood liaison program that began in July 2017. The program is a collaborative effort between Sheridan College, Sheridan County School District 2 and community members to improve kindergarten readiness for students.
Whitney Benefits funded a three-year pilot program for one full-time position and other supplemental resources needed.
Jeriann Jacobson is the Sheridan College early childhood liaison and hosts Kindlers for one hour Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at Highland Park Elementary School. It was previously two days per week but expanded last month due to increased interest.
The program name combines kindergarten and kindling, the idea being that the program helps start a child on the path to education. Kindlers started at the Sheridan County YMCA last January and moved to Highland Park in September.
About 50 people total attended a Wednesday session, with 25 kids ages 5 and younger accompanied mainly by mothers. The hour began with a musical session by Tyler Rogers, arts director at the Sheridan County YMCA. Rogers led the children through arm exercises while they sang songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Mr. Golden Sun” and “Baby Shark.”
Jacobson then read a book aloud as kids listened while sitting with their parents before separating into different activities for the remaining 35 minutes.
For young kids, movement is one of the most effective ways to gain knowledge — “learn through play” is a common phrase in early childhood education — so Jacobson designed several stations that have as many different experiences as possible.
She focuses on providing sensory opportunities and face-to-face interaction and made a conscious effort to exclude most electronic devices.
“This is learn through play and I want kiddos communicating with other kiddos or other parents and physically using their fingers to color, to make the snow, to move the blocks,” Jacobson said.
Parents can either observe their children and help when needed or dive right in and do the activities with them. One of the stations involved students laying on the floor and coloring on the underside of a table, which improves their arm strength for writing with a pencil during school and lets their artistic creativity flourish.
“This is an opportunity to come and have fun with your kids, and that connecting time is just as invaluable as anything at this stage,” Jacobson said.
Some families come weekly or even daily, but Jacobson also regularly meets new people.
Leslie Kerr and her 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Arielle, have been coming every week for about a year, nearly the entire program’s existence.
Kerr enjoys seeing her daughter learn and socialize with other children since it is only the two of them at home most days.
“Now that she’s around kids, it’s nice to be able to see her start to talk to them and share,” Kerr said. “…It’s almost like a mini preschool smushed into an hour.”
Kerr appreciated the chance for her daughter to try a variety of hands-on, potentially messy activities like making homemade snow.
“It’s good to be able to take stuff that we do here home and recreate it,” Kerr said.
Tiffany Jerry accompanied her 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett. They have been coming to the program every Wednesday since it started at Highland Park in September.
Jerry said she appreciates the social opportunity and welcoming atmosphere provided by the program. She added that the different stations inspire creativity for her and her daughter, who loves bringing home creations to show her father. Jerry has also incorporated a few activities, such as making leaf animals, at their home.
Jenny Berens attended Kindlers with her 4-year-old daughter, Adelyn. They have attended the program both at the YMCA and Highland Park.
Berens appreciated the free play aspect and seeing her daughter express her creativity. She also said the program has helped ease her concern about her only child starting school soon.
“When I come here as a parent, I learn more about how I can teach her and guide her on things on my own,” Berens said. “Instead of having to look up so much on the internet about activities and reading books, I feel like I get a lot of resources here on how to parent her so that I can prepare her better for school.”
The new program provides support for children and parents alike, helping ease the shift into traditional schooling.