Partnership center helps tots and parents get off to good start

Nicky Hall, 4, of Ayer, counts beans at the Family Partnership Center with his mom, Christine Hall. His brother, Alex, now in 1st grade, came here too, she said.
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AYER – The Family Partnership Center’s colorfully appointed space at Page Hilltop Elementary School looks like a classic nursery school classroom: small, kid-friendly tables arrayed around a big, bright room with crayon-created wall art; bins full of simple craft materials, shelves of board books and toys.

But it’s not a school, as Director Deanna Christie pointed out during a recent visit.

Serving families from Ayer, Shirley and Devens, the center is a non-profit organization, funded by a Coordinated Family and Community Engagement Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. The center offers free, “fun and friendly” programs to families with young children, birth to school age, in its service area.

The children’s ages and family residency are the only eligibility criteria, Christie said and participation is not income based, she said. The playgroups, for example, are open to all, free of charge.

Housed in the elementary school building, adjacent to the Ayer Shirley Regional School District’s Early Learning Center, the staff – Christie and play group facilitator Sarah Sullivan – enjoy friendly, professional relationships with teachers next door, she said, and some children may segue from one program to the other, or move from the play group room to a child care program housed elsewhere in the building. But the entities are separate and the center  is not part of the public school system.

The school district helps the center fulfill its mission by providing play and office space in the building, free of charge, as well as access to the recently revamped pre-school playground outside.

Operating on a grant-dependent budget, she’s grateful for all the help she can get, including donations, Christie said. In fact, without free rent, the center might have been forced to close when times got tough.

After more than 20 years on the job, Christie is a passionate cheerleader for the cause, full of stories, plans, ideas. She and Sullivan, who’s just as enthusiastic, had lots to say about their work, all positive.

In some ways, the place speaks for itself, with all the right stuff for children, parents, grandparents, caregivers, to play with together, even paints and Play Dough, no stress about stains on the rug.

Kids learn through play, Christie said, and that’s what they do here: play and learn.

The weekly schedule for October shows an array of morning activities such as toddler story hours (1-2 ½ year olds) and play groups for various age groups. Meeting places are at Page Hilltop (top of the hill, rear of the building) or in Devens, at the Bob Eisengren Community Center.

Twice a week, playgroups join Music and Movement sessions at the Ayer and Shirley libraries. Fridays are usually set aside for special events. October’s line-up included two field trips and a costume ball.

One morning, earlier this fall, the centerroom at Page Hilltop was abuzz with activity. Preschoolers, moms and grandmothers, some with younger siblings in tow, all absorbed and engaged in various pursuits, mostly based on the play group’s seasonal theme: Pumpkins.

It was noisy, in a good way, with an exuberant, friendly vibe that a guest could get into.

Some children hollowed out pumpkins, sniffing spicy aromas as the pulpy insides piled up. Others weighed dried seeds and uncooked beans, sorting them into jars. Which pile of beans is bigger?

One tiny tot scooted across a patterned play rug as her mom monitored her progress, scooping her up at the rim. Nearby, another child played with a doll house, unfazed by the buzz and bustle around her.

In a typical classroom scenario, say Kindergarten, students learn to function as a group as teachers lay the groundwork for reading, writing and math skills later on. But center play groups are all about play, Christie said, pinpointing the common denominator for every child-centered activity on the roster.

Play groups can also provide grounding for the kids’ adult caregivers, she said.

Children playing next to, but not with, others, for example.

Absent groups like this, some parents might think it’s odd when their small son ignores other kids at the playground or snatches toys in the sandbox. They might see it as a sign that their child isn’t developing as he should. That’s rarely true, Christie said. It’s normal behavior for most two year olds.

Most young children “parallel play” before they start playing together, she said. It’s part of a healthy child development cycle and not necessarily a sign that something’s wrong, she said.

The center has a developmental chart, Christie said, with check-points and notes to help parents track their child’s progress. At the same time, play sessions, one-on-one sit-downs with the director and interactive support groups offer opportunities to observe, air concerns and compare notes, she said.

Some parents may need more support than they can expect in a group setting, Christie said.

The center  also provides a two-year, in-home program for “under-served” Ayer and Shirley families. It’s under the same umbrella, she said.

The center’s trained volunteers visit participating families in their homes, meet with adults in the household and interact with the kids. They even bring gifts – books and toys that the kids can keep.

Christie said some parents who don’t read to their children may not realize how important it is. Maybe nobody read to them in childhood. They might not have books in the house or visit the local library.

The center home program introduces those concepts, Christie said.

Some families may have obstacles to overcome, disabilities, language barriers.

One family she worked with had two disabled adults who were home bound, Christie said. As a result, a young child in the household couldn’t get out to play with other kids. She was able to join a center playgroup, Christie said.

An immigrant family appreciated children’s books she found for them, printed in Arabic.

If further services are needed, FPC can provide professional referrals, she said.

For more information, call 978-772-8600, ext. 1428. Or visit “The Family Partnership Center” on Facebook.