Children learn valuable skills while playing together in an inclusive learning environment at the Connect Us summer program
Charles wakes up early Wednesday mornings to go to his summer program at Cook Park. He is excited to see his old friends and play outside for the day. He puts on his mask and walks to the group to greet them. The instructor begins to explain the project, then gives Charles the supplies he needs to create what assuredly will be a masterpiece. His fingers glide across the paint brushes as he begins to plan his project and work through the steps. He receives help from his peers as they all work on having productive conversations and work together as a group.
This is a snapshot of the summer program this year at Connect Us, a Denver mill levy-funded initiative at Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS) that fosters social inclusion, supports friendship building and teaches leadership skills for youth. The program brings children together to build social skills and learn how to express their feelings through play.
Children usually play together on the playground at Connect Us but since the pandemic, the details of how they play have changed to accommodate public health guidance. The groups play together outdoors at a safe physical distance. Everyone wears a mask and constantly uses hand sanitizer when doing activities. While some of the protocols have adjusted somewhat in light of COVID-19, the focus remains the same.
“Play is the universal language of kids,” said Stephanie Schiff, executive director at Connect Us.
The framework that Connect Us uses empowers kids to learn from peers through activities that are facilitated by adults. The program uses experiential learning as a lesson to build problem solving skills and understand each other. Many of the valuable lessons are best taught through play, where kids can be themselves.
In the program children receive lessons about inclusivity and tolerance so they can work as a team.
Children who enter the program have different levels of social skills. Some of the kids struggle socially due to a disability or lack of social skills while others feel far more comfortable in social settings. Connect Us brings those kids together to teach them how to cope, understand their feelings and learn from one another. Often times, kids will be paired with others based on their strengths and weaknesses.
Breaking Down Stigmas
Stephanie originally created the organization after she saw her son, who is on the autism spectrum, playing alone on the playground at his school. She watched as his classmates connected with each other and constantly rejected her son’s attempts to be included. She noticed his behavior changing at school and at home, so she decided to do something about it.
Stephanie created Connect Us in 2009. Her goal was to foster a safe play environment for children so they could grow and learn from each other. It began as a volunteer summer program, then expanded into schools as a recess and after school program. The demand continued to grow as parents and teachers saw positive changes in children’s behaviors.
The staff was able to reduce negative interactions by addressing them on the playground and encouraging children to solve their own problems.
“Kids are the solution here, not the adults,” Stephanie said. Staff at Connect Us try not to solve the problems for the children. Kids are encouraged to figure issues out themselves with some guidance from staff.
The environment at Connect Us offers children a safe place to identify their problems, work through them and take responsibility for their roles on the playground. The lessons are intended to help children identify problems and proactively break down stigma.
Many parents and kids are happy the program is still available to teach kids valuable skills through play during the summer. Kids enjoy time with peers in a place where they feel like they belong.