New center systematic about child development
CASSOPOLIS — Play groups help parents, grandparents and caregivers develop new relationships, gain new ideas and insight on parenting, learn new resources and be a role model for children.
Play groups help children prepare for preschool through social stimulation, improving speech and language skills, learning routines and how to cope with new environments.
Play groups, which started in February, and preschool are just two things found at Squires Education Center, 725 Center St., the former Cassopolis elementary school built in 1960 which also houses district administration offices.
Heather Merrill directs programs of Cass County Great Start Early Childhood Department for Lewis Cass Intermediate School District, including two state-funded, all-day preschools for 4-year-olds comparable to Inside Track in Dowagiac.
“We have two teachers for 16 kids, which is a lovely ratio,” Merrill said. “They have breakfast here, naps and lunch,” prepared by Cassopolis Public Schools.
And a pet rabbit, Albert. Spacious grounds allowed a pig to visit.
They hatched eggs for three weeks to get 18 chicks.
Each child has a classroom job, such as lights or door holding.
Preschoolers row around in a cardboard box boat with two yardstick oars.
Besides Cassopolis Public Schools and the LCISD, the center contains Woodlands Behavioral Health Care; Lighthouse Christian Child Care Center licensed day care directed by Michelle Helmuth-Charles, president of Dowagiac Board of Education; and federally-funded Head Start, moving in after May 15 from a modular off Austin Street in Cassopolis to serve children this fall.
It is also home base for three 0-5 workers, parent educators who go out and work with families, plus there is a part-time play group coordinator, Vicki Foote, (269) 445-6283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The central play area at the heart of the 10-room center is age-appropriate to children 0-5.
“It allows families to learn about the development of their children, whether they have a home worker who comes out to help with parenting,” Merrill said Tuesday. “It brings them all together so peer stuff happens. We focus on literacy. Play groups are themed, and every kid leaves with a book.”
“Kids have experiences that are free to the community,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you live in the county, if you have a kid 0-5, you can come. On Wednesdays it’s more facilitated, with a story and an activity around it, but we also have open play times. We have a lot of grandparents raising or babysitting grandchildren during the day” who come on Fridays.
K&M Machine-Fabricating, St. Denys Foundation and United Way donated materials.
“It’s county-based,” she said, but without being able to offer transportation, “we recognizethe community of Cass has easier access.”
There is a resource room where parents conduct monthly meetings.
“We started caring for kids three weeks ago,” said Helmuth-Charles.
One is the younger sibling of a preschool student with a sister in Head Start, so they can all be together after school.
“We’ve tried to create something so moms can come to one location,” Merrill said. “We all work collaboratively and can make it happen seamlessly.”
“We’re feeding from our level into a system so infants and toddlers are really ready for preschool and kindergarten,” Helmuth-Charles said. “Before and after school, I have kids up to 8. My youngest is nine weeks.”
The secure early childhood end of the building had to be licensed by the state Department of Human Services.
“The state is definitely focused on early childhood over the last few years,” Merrill said. “A lot of grants have come out in federal dollars to support that. We could see an increase in funding, which would allow us to serve more children, but you don’t know until things are signed. It’s great to have the partnerships because we’ll certainly get more done together than separately. I think it’s great we can use an existing building. With less money, we have to get creative to get kids fully prepared for K-12.”
Always on Friday
summer play group
schedule at Squires
10 a.m. to noon
June 7, 21
July 12, 26
Aug. 9, 23
Dowagiac Daily News