The ABC Cayuga PlaySpace will celebrate its five month anniversary on November 5th, 2017. Nancy Tehan, the Executive Director of the PlaySpace, smiles as she reminisces on the organization’s first five months: “It’s very joyful work here. The kids and families are so appreciative - we get at least one thank you per day”.
As children ages 0-6 play on the state-of-the-art equipment with their caregivers, it’s easy to overlook the long, winding road that culminated in the remodeling of a vacant bank in downtown Auburn. A community playspace was far from the minds of stakeholders when they first gathered together six years ago, in the early months of 2011. Various organizations, including the Allyn Family Foundation, the United Way, Auburn Enlarged City School District, and the Cayuga County Department of Social Services joined forces with local parents and pediatricians to form a community collaborative titled ABC Cayuga. The group knew that they wanted to focus their efforts on families with young children, following research on early childhood cognitive development and the ‘word gap’. But they weren’t sure where to begin.
ABC Cayuga conducted a series of community surveys to identify common concerns and challenges for Cayuga county families. The data overwhelming revealed that new parents and caregivers with young children felt isolated, as if they were “parenting on an island”. Families with young children felt removed from the community and trapped in their homes, especially during the long, cold winter months. They remarked that they wanted to connect with other caregivers for social support and informal education: many parents didn’t know where to turn with questions about their child’s development or behavioral issues.
With the community’s feedback in hand, ABC Cayuga went back to the drawing board. After reviewing dozens of reports, the group selected the Strengthening Families Framework to structure their efforts. The Strengthening Families Framework, developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, united the diverse ABC Cayuga stakeholders around a set of five protective factors. The five protective factors - parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting best practices and child development, concrete support, and children’s social/emotional competence - applied to all families in the community, irrespective of race, socioeconomic status, or background. They also spoke to the heart of ABC Cayuga’s mission to ensure success for local children and families.
ABC Cayuga first worked to increase collaboration between existing organizations, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership and the Cayuga County Department of Social Services. They also launched a series of Parenting Cafes, hosted at various public locations across Auburn. The idea was that caregivers and parents could come with their children and learn about parenting practices alongside peers. It quickly became evident, however that the highly structured Cafes were not suitable for parents’ constantly evolving schedules. It was very difficult for parents and their children to attend the Cafes on a consistent basis. While the Parenting Cafe’s facilitators made every effort to establish a welcoming atmosphere, some parents were also dissuaded by the idea of formal ‘parenting classes’. “Comfort is absolutely essential,” notes Tehan.
ABC Cayuga was aware of the absence of public child-friendly spaces in Cayuga County. The closest clean, child-focused spaces were located in Ithaca and Syracuse - more than a forty minute drive away. With the limited reach of the Parenting Cafes in mind, the group began dreaming about a playspace in the heart of downtown Auburn, where “parents would want to come, and so would their kids,” describes Tehan. A PlaySpace would facilitate organic connections between different parents and children, while also supporting casual conversations about parenting and child development. Constructing a PlaySpace also dovetailed with longstanding research about the importance of play in early child development: studies demonstrate that play - especially child-led play - is vital to healthy brain development. Children develop their creativity, fine motor skills, and cognitive and emotional strength through play, while also engaging in unparalleled one-on-one time with their caregivers. Moreover, physical play helps combat obesity - a pressing concern among school-aged children and adults in Cayuga County. “Parents in Cayuga County need more opportunities for themselves and their children to socialize with peers and engage in physical play with their children,” concluded the ABC Cayuga PlaySpace grant proposal.
ABC Cayuga members visited several other child-focused spaces as they worked to design an inviting, developmentally appropriate space for children ages 0-6, including the Nonnie Hood Parent Resource Center in Corning, NY. They eventually identified Roto Design of Dublin, Ohio to design and outfit the space. The PlaySpace broke ground after a year long Capital Campaign, and now functions as both a welcoming space for children as well as a hub for other family-related services: Child Care Solutions is co-located in the building, and HeadStart organizes regular family visits to the PlaySpace. Children and families are greeted by the PlaySpace’s mission when they walk through the front doors: “to enrich young children’s lives through play by providing a welcoming place where young children and their families play, learn and grow together”.
With three hundred and thirty annual memberships and counting, the PlaySpace appears to be meeting a need for families with young children in Cayuga County. Tehan hopes to expand the PlaySpace’s programming in the coming months in order to reach even more families. She credits ABC Cayuga with engaging in ‘big picture thinking’ to make the PlaySpace a reality: “This kind of work doesn’t fit into traditional grantmaking,” she notes.
The PlaySpace is open Wednesday through Friday, with special program offerings such as Story and Stretch Yoga StoryTime taking place during operating hours. It offers all parents and children the opportunity to play, laugh, and grow together - so that Cayuga County’s present and future may be bright, healthy and happy.
1 Lahey (2014). Poor kids and the word gap. The Atlantic. Originally published 16 October 2014, accessed on 14 October 2017. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/10/american-kids-are-starving-for-words/381552/
2 Ginsburg (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1). Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182
3 According to New York State Community Health Indicator Reports, 34.7% of elementary school-aged children are either overweight or obese in Cayuga County. Obesity and Related Indicators - Cayuga County, 2013- 2015. New York State Department of Health, updated August 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/chac/chai/docs/obs_5.htm