This is a series of profiles of people making Oakland Smarter and Stronger.
Jackie Portillo and Autry Willis, Central Family Resource Center Playgroup
From February to June 2018, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) piloted a weekly playgroup at the Central OUSD Family Resource Center (FRC) for families with children ages birth to 5. Children and parents played together, and parents have the opportunity to interact with each other, with the support of teacher leaders from Lotus Bloom anda mental health consultant from Jewish Family and Community Services. Families also attended workshops on early literacy and school and community resources in support of kindergarten readiness.
The Central FRC is a natural location for a playgroup, says Maria Sujo of OUSD, because families already come to this location when registering older children for school or accessing refugee and newcomer services.
Recently, OUSD Senior Program Coordinator Jackie Portillo and Lotus Bloom Parent Leader Autry Willis shared their thoughts on the pilot playgroup, which will renew in the fall.
Jackie, why did you decide to create this playgroup at the FRC? This FRC is growing and growing. We’re serving 350 families a week through the food pantry on this site. Other families come to the FRC because they need help with Medi-Cal or other programs. I started seeing that parents would come in with their kids and talk to each other, and play with the toys we did have. They wanted to be here. It put the idea of a playgroup in my head. So, working with Maria Sujo at OUSD, we turned an empty classroom into the FRC playroom, where there’s lots of space to play and interact.
How have parents responded to the playgroup so far? Jackie: parents love it. I’ve run other programs on kindergarten readiness, and I always say that we can have the best toys and the best practices, but if we don’t give parents the space and time to enjoy being parents, it doesn’t matter. They have that space here. Autry: Parents are happy about having a place where they can interact. For example, we have two families who are Eritrean. The first day, when they came and saw each other and they were able to talk in their own language – they just lit up! I think the playgroup helps families get more familiar with OUSD too. And for the children – let me give you one example. One of the little girls was quiet for the first two weeks. We put spinach and cucumber in the water and she thought it was “nasty.” This time she came in saying “teacher, teacher” and she was excited to drink the water. She’s feeling comfortable now, and that will help her later in preschool or kindergarten. What’s your favorite part of the playgroup? Autry: for me, it’s seeing parents get down on the floor with their kids, reading books, playing with play-dough or blocks. I love watching families get more comfortable taking the lead in playing with their own kids and others’ kids, and not just following the teacher. Jackie: I love seeing parents understand the importance of play, and discover that they can change the lives of their children. You don’t need to do much to run these playgroups. You just have to give space to parents and help them have confidence in their own skills. I love to help parents see what is possible.
For more information on how you can support playgroups at the OUSD Central Family Resource Center, contact Maria Sujo at firstname.lastname@example.org.