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Despite some of the children getting “the wiggles” by the end of story time, Esther Gomez’s exuberance was contagious: she had everyone singing along to the group's good-bye song at the end of the morning.
Gomez, a bilingual parent educator for Bright Beginnings (a partnership between Kent Intermediate School District and its constituent districts), leads free weekly play groups for children aged 0-5 and their parents at various sites in Kent County.
Each play group session provides an opportunity for parents to share and learn with one another. It’s also a chance for children and parents to learn how to communicate and connect in meaningful ways.
“We open the door, facilitate, and provide a few activities,” Gomez said. “It's the parents and children doing the work.”
Gomez, a mother of two high school aged girls, wishes her own children had had the opportunity to attend such a play group when they were younger. She expressed her great appreciation of the families who come to play group and admires their openness to learning.
“Parents are their children's first and best teachers,” Gomez said.
Bright Beginnings offers other services as well, such as developmental screening and home visits, as well as access to nutrition information and other resources.
During the free play time at the beginning of each session, Gomez shows families different ways to engage with the toys and materials available. The Bright Beginnings program helps parents realize that learning can take place at any level.
“Pay attention,” Gomez advises parents. “Let your children be your guides.”
Recently at the Buchanan Elementary play group, the theme was “Dr. Seuss on the Loose.” About ten families participated; many have been in the program for a few years. One mother was attending for the first time with her son. The family had recently moved back to Grand Rapids and as a stay-at-home mom, she'd realized that her son needed more interaction with other children. She'd heard about Bright Beginnings through her sister.
Word of mouth is a common way of finding out about the program, along with brochures, newsletters, and having older children enrolled at a participating school. Others find out about the program through their children's doctors. Bright Beginnings also works closely with Welcome Home Baby.
At Buchanan, families gathered around child-sized tables for a healthy snack while Gomez talked about the importance of good nutrition, an important part of play group each week. She emphasized that parents need to set a good example for their children. During singing time at the end of the morning, children followed Gomez's lead, greeting one another and tapping out rhythms with paint stirrers.
Gomez is brimming with ideas for homemade toys and simple yet innovative ways of learning. Through her dedication to the families she serves, she’s seen that it's often the little interactions that mean the most.
The Community Literacy Initiative (CLI) of the Literacy Center of West Michigan is a literacy coalition that seeks to empower community leaders, parents, and residents to improve literacy for all ages in West Michigan.