Welcome back to another post in our Better Together series. If you’ve been following along with our blog, you’ve read stories and perspectives of many of the participants in United Way’s Better Together/Mejor Juntas Program. One of the people we talked to was Sharon Lichtenstein, the Master Teacher who developed the curriculum, which would be taught to the families. If you’d like to check out her post, click here.
As we wrap up this summer’s Better Together program, we wanted to talk to Sharon again and learn more about the impact of this program. Learn what she had to say:
“I’m flattered that you reached out to me so that I can share my joy and commitment to the Better Together/Mejor Juntas Program. I felt that we were doing something very important for the North Chicago families, who had children under three years of age. The program became a community of caring adults, who were excited to support their children’s learning. We met regularly, and many of the families, who didn’t know one another, became friends. Visitors to the classroom could not tell which children belonged to which adult. It was a true example of “it takes a village.”
We know that parents/caregivers are children’s first and most important teachers. At BT/MJ we encourage the parents and caregivers to believe in their significant role. We want to provide an environment that builds feelings of competency and self-esteem for the adults. They are significant contributors to their children’s later success in school and in life.
What was your goal with hosting the Better Together Program during the summer?
We wanted to offer a summer program that continued to support families’ commitment to their children’s learning. We intentionally offered interesting and fun activities to help prepare the children for future school success. Since it was summer, we focused on using natural materials and exploring nature. We wanted the children and families to have outdoor play experiences and created a new outside play space. We also wanted to strengthen the families’ connection to the larger North Chicago Community
Summer is a special time for Better Together campers and families. It is an opportunity for children to explore the outdoors and nature, to learn about the larger world. Our curriculum helps our families connect to nature through neighborhood walks; encouraging a sense of freedom in outdoor play that is different from playing indoors. It provides opportunities to take more physical learning risks—running, jumping, and climbing.
What topics were covered during each session?
- Session 1 : Focused on growing. “What do you need to make things grow?”
- Session 2 : Focused on taking a neighborhood walk. “What will we see on our neighborhood walk?”
- Session 3 : Focused on exploring worms. “Tell me about worms. Where do they live? What do they eat?”
- Session 4 : Focused on community helpers. The North Chicago Fire Department visited the camp. “What do firefighters do? How can they help you?” We also drew a group thank you banner that was delivered to the fire department.
- Session 5 : Focused on literacy. North Chicago’s children’s librarian visited camp and shared finger plays and read stories to the children in Spanish and English.
- Session 6 : End of Camp Fiesta to celebrate the end of camp. It was planned and hosted by the families.
Why do you feel that it is beneficial that families and their children participate in Better Together?
We envisioned camp to be an extension of the school year program, though it only met twice a week for three weeks. However, Better Together Summer Camp took on a life of its own. Families, who had children under three years of age, also brought their older siblings! The group became a community of families. Our classroom was a safe and stimulating environment for children’s play where adults met other adults with similar goals and dreams for their children. It became a “Family Camp,” where everyone was welcome
The families’ consistent attendance demonstrated their attachment to the program and to one another. Every class’s attendance increased from the previous one. We even had some dads come with their children. We had a counselor who was a big brother to one of the campers. The families’ willingness to plan and execute a final class Fiesta showed their strong feelings of commitment to one another and the class.
We learned more about the families during the six camp sessions than during the entire school year. We discovered two families were involved in early intervention, another mother/child needed transportation, and still others needed support to help with the logistics of enrolling in preschool. We can help our families make important connections to outside agencies to help and support them.
Better Together provided a safe space where families came together, played with their children in an environment that supported intentional learning, and played outside. Participation of these special adults was an essential component of the camp’s success.
As we approach the new school year, what do you hope to accomplish with the fall sessions of Better Together?
- I hope Better Together/Mejor Juntas continues to meet the communities’ needs. I want to strengthen the families’ role as their children’s first teachers to help them prepare their children for future school success.
- I’d like to expand the program to include a more diversified population that is more representative of the community.
- I’d like to continue reaching out to various community organizations to foster stronger relationships with BT/MJ families.
- I’d like the families to take on a more important role in the execution of the curriculum. I’d like them to let BT/MJ know what types of play and learning they would like to see in class.
- I’d like to expand the curriculum to include large motor play. We have been told that the room across the hall from us isn’t being used this new school year, and BT/MJ has enough equipment to furnish the space for gross motor activities.
- I want the families to think that BT/MJ is a valuable resource for early childhood and family questions, whether we can answer them immediately or help connect them to outside referrals.
As you can see, there has been a lot of thought and love invested by many people into this program. We are very proud of what we have accomplished this year, and look forward to more positive changes and additions in the new school year.”