“Where can I go?” asked Ebonyse Mead.
“To the beach,” said 5-year-old Ka’Tori Clayton.
“OK, go to the beach.”
So Ka’tori stood and went to a picture of a bright beachscape, picked up a plastic pail and shovel and then tried on an inflatable armband while the other children giggled and the grownups gave her a round of applause.
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“Where can I go?” Mead said. “I can go to the store.”
“La Tienda,” said Avilamar Castillo.
So 4-year-old Biana Tlaixco stood and went shopping at a picture stocked with toy merchandise.
What was going on was a game of readers’ theater at the East Durham Children’s Initiative, where Mead and Castillo work. It was played out during a trial run last week of a sort of bilingual book club for preschool children and their families.
It was play, and it was clear the kids and the grownups on hand were having fun, but it had a serious purpose.
“This is part of our mission, helping parents become kindergarten-ready so they can help their children become kindergarten-ready,” Mead said. “This is one way we can do both.”
The East Durham Children’s Initiative is a six-year-old project intended to encourage, guide and nurture children and their families, from cradles to college and careers – and to do it in a part of Durham that has been practically synonymous with poverty, and its associated social ills, for decades. The EDCI “zone” covers 120 city blocks, including the neighborhoods targeted by Mayor Bill Bell’s Poverty Reduction Initiative.
Ty-Esha Burnett, who brought her 5-year-old daughter, Jer-Shya Johnson, for the readers’ theater, wasn’t familiar with the mayor’s initiative, but the Children’s Initiative had made an impression.
“It’s built (children’s) skills in reading and writing and math, the cognitive skills – just teaching them to be better students,” Burnett said.
“EDCI has been a blessing to this community,” said Helen Gill, Ka’Tori Clayton’s mother.
“They have book clubs for kids in the neighborhood,” Burnett said. “A lot of stuff for the kids to do in the neighborhood besides do nothing and get in trouble.”
There are block parties and, at Halloween, trunk-or-treat, put on by the neighborhood group Communities in Partnership – one of more than 20 Durham agencies and organizations with which EDCI collaborates.
The evening chosen for the book club meeting was bitter cold and as the 6 p.m. start time approached Mead was wondering whether anyone would come out for it. Nevertheless, four of the five families invited eventually arrived – two English-speaking and two Spanish-speaking.
“We selected our families that were ... most active in our program,” Mead said. “To start out, we wanted to have a good turnout.”
Last week’s meeting was a “pilot,” said Samantha Cole, EDCI’s communications coordinator, with the intent of encouraging parents and children to interact in ways that build vocabulary and children’s ability to use words.
About 10 days before the meeting, EDCI gave each of the families a preschool book to read, “Where Can I Go?” with text in English and Spanish. When they got together, there was a picture illustrating each destination and the children took turns acting out the book – going to the beach, the grocery store, the zoo and so on.
“It’s not just about reading,” said Winnie Morgan of the nonprofit Durham’s Partnership for Children, who helped lead the program last week. “It’s about retelling.”
Before the play, the parents and kids had activities of their own: the children icing cupcakes while their parents made take-home games to teach colors and shapes – circle, rectangle, star and so on. Making the games together was meant to encourage the parents to get to know each other.
“There’s kind of an implicit support in attending events with their kids,” Cole said. “People know that they have children who are the same ages and they can reach out together for advice. Or just spend time together.”
It was also meant to show that, “You don’t have to be a preschool teacher to come up with activities,” Morgan said.
Primarily, though, the purpose was to encourage reading and using a lot of words. EDCI holds weekly Story Hours for preschoolers and their parents, one in Spanish at the Children’s Initiative offices and one in English at the Hoover Road Apartments, a public-housing complex. It also loans and gives away books to encourage families to build up children’s libraries at home.
“Reading is a big factor in brain development,” Morgan said. “If that doesn’t happen, literally the brain prunes off part of its structure.”
Last week’s meeting was a test run, Mead said, and as it was breaking up she reminded parents to send her feedback.
“When’s the next one?” Gill said. “I enjoyed it. I love it. Keep up the good work.”