In a bustling kindergarten classroom, where children are learning about the seasons, Olabisi Agosu sits at a pint-sized table, crafting a picture of spring, drawing the grass, the trees and a bright yellow sun. But Agosu isn’t a student. She’s a parent.
This class, at St Maria Goretti Catholic School in Scarborough, runs a unique drop-in session once a month for parents to spend time playing with their kids.
“It’s a way of engaging kids and understanding your own child,” says Agosu, as her son Alexander, 5, sits nearby, gluing foam butterflies and flowers onto his own spring scene.
“I work 9 to 5 and, before I get home, I’m exhausted,” says the senior business analyst. “I don’t have that time to understand where my son lacks in his academics … and how he is relating to other kids. So this is an opportunity to see everything.”
In many schools, parents are invited to visit their child’s classroom at the start or end of the day, to speak with students on a particular topic or to participate in a specific initiative. But, these drop-in sessions, dubbed “Parents at Play,” seem unique in that teacher Sarah Tercer Fernandes and early childhood educator Anthonia Ikemeh run them every month. They’re always on Fridays between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., so moms and dads can pop by on their lunch break. Now in its second year, the program is a success.
Children squeal with delight when their parents arrive, eager to share what they’re doing. And parents relish the time spent with their kids in the class, where they meet others, develop relationships with the educators, and gain deeper insight into play-based learning so they can recreate it at home.
“We don’t do anything different than our normal day,” says Ikemeh. “It’s the same activities and same structure. The kids know what they’re doing and the parents just come in to join in the play.”
For a class with 29 junior and senior kindergarten students, there are usually between eight to 12 parents at each session. Some attend monthly, while others are more infrequent because of work commitments. Every child has had a parent attend at least once.
“We’re bonding with families,” explains Fernandes. “It’s giving parents that sense of comfort … As a parent, I think it’s reassuring to know that you have that relationship with the teacher.”
Ikemeh notes it’s also comforting for younger children, who are still adjusting to full days in school.
Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says this drop-in sounds like a “fabulous” and “creative” idea that should be replicated.
“It’s innovation that should be made more common,” he told the Star. “The best educational goals are reached when there is wonderful collaboration and understanding between educators and parents about the kids that they share … That is absolutely critical at all levels of education, particularly the early years.”
His comments are echoed, in part, by Manuel Gonzalez, the father of Ayden, 6, who calls it “a great idea.”
“You get to interact with other kids and you get to see how (your child) behaves around other kids,” says Gonzalez, who works in construction and has Fridays off, allowing him to attend.
His wife joins him, when she can get away from work during lunch, and he says they’ve both picked up ideas for games and activities to do at home with the kids. On this day, Gonzalez’s wife isn’t there — he’s brought his toddler son, Alec, who’s bouncing around the room.
At one table, is a gaggle of children playing a game about the alphabet, called Swat the Letter, led by Aswini Gilbert, mother of Tiana, 5.
“This is amazing, I love it,” says Gilbert. “It’s good to know about the classroom environment and the toys she’s playing with. And, I can see how she’s interacting with her own friends. That’s more important for me: To understand how she behaves in class.”
Parents Diwata Antolin and Joseph Tacadena, whose son John is in senior kindergarten, enjoy the social aspect.
“It’s a very good experience for John because he gets to socialize with the parents of his classmates,” says Antolin. “It’s good for us too, because we get to meet the parents.”
Antolin says watching John in this environment gives her unique insight into his development. The couple also have a son in junior kindergarten, down the hallway, but his teacher doesn’t run this kind of a program.
At St. Maria Goretti Catholic School — the largest elementary school in the Toronto Catholic District School Board with about 1,000 students — there are five kindergarten classes. But only this one runs a regular drop-in session for parents.
“Parents at Play is a great program but it’s not the only way that we can engage parents here at school,” says vice-principal Conor McTernan. “Each teacher engages their parent community in different ways.”
Fernandes and Ikemeh have shared their experience with other teachers, even speaking about it at a reading conference for educators earlier this year where many expressed interest. But, they say, it’s important teachers do what they’re comfortable with.
Agosu, Alexander’s mother, is delighted the duo started this program, which she has attended regularly throughout the year. She credits it with bolstering her son’s interest in reading at home.
“When you’re fully engaged with your kids they’re more involved in academics,” she says. “Any time I’m engaged I see the improvement.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74