Learning through play: Grand Rapids Children’s Museum program gets preschoolers ready for kindergarten

Learning through play: Grand Rapids Children’s Museum program gets preschoolers ready for kindergarten

Grand Rapids Children's Museum by Matt Vande Bunte

On one side of the classroom, a few children gathered around a sewing machine and put buttons on clothes. Three kids worked on puzzles at a table nearby. A lone boy cut out paper dolls with scissors. A girl painted at an easel.

On a play mat with pictures of roads and buildings, four boys driving matchbox cars led a teacher around town to the school and then to the supermarket.

“Where are we going to go now?” the teacher asked.

Hmm, maybe to the bin of blocks in the corner, or the play kitchen against the wall, or to a sensory table with pieces of colored macaroni.

Welcome to “Purposefully Playing Toward Kindergarten” (PPTK), a growing summer program that emphasizes open-ended play to get preschoolers ready for kindergarten.

“It looks different for each child,” said Onalee Melton, a site coordinator at Buchanan Elementary School, one of four campuses where PPTK is taking place this summer. “We have the blessing with this program to guide kids into whatever they’re excited about.”

About half of incoming kindergarteners these days are not prepared to succeed in school. In some cases, the children are lagging behind in their understanding of basic math concepts or their use of language. In other cases, they’re not quite ready socially or emotionally.

PPTK aims to build all of those kindergarten-readiness skills through a unique partnership involving the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) and donors including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Delta Dental. In the program, GRPS teachers and paraprofessionals are teaming with “play facilitators” from the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum to immerse students in four hours of open-ended play time Mondays through Thursdays for five weeks.

It’s the same kind of open-ended play the children would experience if they were to visit the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum downtown. Only the PPTK program is right at their local neighborhood school.

‘There are so many barriers for our kids in these neighborhoods to get to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum that we’re not going to just stay inside our four walls anymore,” said Maggie Lancaster, the museum’s CEO. ‘We’re going to come to you and provide this wonderful open-ended play where you are.’

‘There are so many barriers for our kids in these neighborhoods to get to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum that we’re not going to just stay inside our four walls anymore,” said Maggie Lancaster, the museum’s CEO. ‘We’re going to come to you and provide this wonderful open-ended play where you are.’

The children at each of the four sites eat breakfast and brush their teeth each morning and get lunch before they go home. In between, they enjoy about an hour-and-a-half of indoor exploration – building things out of magnetic tiles, for example, or making bead necklaces or figuring out how the sewing machine works. They also get about an hour of outdoor exploration.

In other words, they learn through play – even if they don’t realize that they’re learning.

“When they play with bubbles, when they play with Legos, when they play with slime, that open-ended play is a critical part of brain development,” said Maggie Lancaster, CEO of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. “That’s where we come in. If you go into our museum you’ll never see signs. There’s no way that we’re ever going to tell anybody how to play with something or where to go or what to do. It has to be child-led. GRPS has provided that opportunity in this summer program as well.”

PPTK is a free program that began two summers ago with 25 children and now involves 205 children at four GRPS schools – Buchanan, Kent Hills, Martin Luther King and Sibley. Partners plan to expand the program even more in 2020.

Grand Rapids Children's Museum PPTKMany families can’t afford preschool, so PPTK fills the gap by exposing them to play-based learning in a structured environment with a high adult-to-child ratio. Having a safe space with the opportunity for open-ended play helps the children build confidence and a sense of autonomy, said Lauren Greer, director of education for the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

“The best parts are the tiny stories that come out of each day, where maybe one child who isn’t very verbal one day had a lot to stay about something, or some child has a breakthrough and discovers that they love painting and they paint all day,” Greer said.

“That’s how you know this is really valuable. The space that we’re providing these children for their social and emotional growth is most important.”

The growth of the program alone is evidence that parents find value in PPTK. But the program also is proving to be successful at preparing kids for kindergarten. By the end of the summer, 90 percent of parents feel that their children are ready for school, said Yazeed Moore, program officer with the Kellogg Foundation.

Plus, each child in PPTK gets a free Grand Rapids Children’s Museum membership for a year so they can experience even more open-ended play.

The bottom line is that through play, more children are having fun and getting ready to hit the ground running on their first day of kindergarten – which is critical to their chances of long-term academic success.

“Kindergarten readiness is so critical,” said Kate Lara, GRPS director of early childhood. “To be able to learn the academic skills of kindergarten, you need to have those social skills as your basis first. Right now (through PPTK), they’re learning how school works. GRCM PPTKThey’re learning that it’s a safe space. They’re learning that there’s expectations and that they can follow those expectations. They’re learning what a classroom is, how to function in school and how to function with their peers.

“We’re going to have 205 kids who are much more ready for kindergarten than they sure would have been without this program.”