The children enter the room with gleeful excitement, their eyes darting from toy to toy.
On this particular Tuesday, the biggest draw is the sandboxes, which the children regard with unusually rapt attention.
But it could just as easily have been the toddler-size basketball net, or the small wooden kitchen, or the myriad cars and trucks, or the brightly-colored block puzzles.
The children are here to play, and what they choose to play with changes frequently. What doesn't change is how they behave when they're here: as if being let loose in a room full of toys is the most exciting thing in the world.
It is week four of the Stay & Play program at the Phyllis Bornt Branch Library and Literacy Center on State Street.
Geared toward children ages one, two and three, Stay & Play promotes literacy, speech development and other aspects of a healthy childhood, such as fitness and nutrition. Each week, a different specialist visits the program, to provide information and answer questions from parents.
This week, the specialist is Megan Latza, a nutrition specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady.
I sit in while Latza speaks to Darlene Cannon, a Schenectady woman who attends Stay & Play with her three-year-old grandson, Tyrone.
Tyrone plays in the sandbox while Cannon gets advice from Latza on how to cut down on the amount of chocolate milk he drinks, as well as information on how much dairy is appropriate for a child his age.
Latza also shows Cannon a game board with pictures of food on it - cheese, pancakes, pears, etc. - and explains the rules: If players land on a fruit or vegetable, they get a check mark. If they get a certain number of check marks, they win.
"Read the words with (Tyrone) to make them more familiar," Latza tells Cannon. "The literacy part helps with the eating part."
I attended all five Stay & Play sessions in May, and as the program progresses I come to think of it as a gateway program that can lead to other, more time-intensive enrichment programs for families.
Many of the parents say that Stay & Play is the first enrichment program they've brought their child to, and that it has made them more interested in signing up for similar programs. Some parents tell me they are now thinking about school - about Head Start, or another pre-kindergarten program.
"I'm going to get [Tyrone] on the waiting list for Head Start," Cannon tells me. "He needs help with speech development and sharing."
Tyrone, like the other children, has come to love Stay & Play.
He is a curious boy with an ebullient smile and lots of interests, and he is just as easily absorbed by an art activity as a physical game. During week five, he decorates a heart with reflective material pasted to it, then dashes off to throw balls into the net.
"He loves to play with other kids," Cannon says. "He can't wait to go to school."
Parents are invited to come with their kids, play with toys and get tips on literacy, speech development and other things at Stay & Play. (Marc Schultz)
Stay & Play is open to anyone, but targets lower-income families.
Research has shown that the language gap between poor and rich children begins at a very early age, and Stay & Play aims to bridge some of that gap, introducing parents to tools and strategies for promoting literacy in the home.
Each week Kaela Wallman, the youth services director at Schenectady County Public Library, gives the Stay & Play parents a card containing a "literacy tip" for "injecting a moment of literacy into your day."
One card suggests talking to children while helping them dress. "Say, 'Close your eyes. Here comes your shirt," or "Next are your socks!"
"Parents tell me they're talking more with their kids, engaging more," Wallman says, after five weeks of Stay & Play has concluded. "They're using song more."
One parent who tells me she's noticed a big change in her 19-month-old son is Hassina Djoubani, a Schenectady woman who immigrated to the U.S. from Algeria seven years ago.
Djoubani says that the boy, whose name is Yacine, has become bolder and more verbal during Stay & Play.
"He's trying to talk," she says. "He's not as shy." She watches as he runs across the room and grabs a marker. "Before, he would have taken me by the hand and and we would have gone over there together," she says.
Stay & Play attendance fluctuates week by week, with between two and six families attending the sessions.
Some parents attend once and never again; others attend most, but not all, of the sessions. Those that do attend say they're getting a lot out of it.
"I really like it," Djoubani says. "He's playing right now and he's learning." We watch Yacine pick up colored tubes and examine them. "He's working with colors and working on his motor skills," his mother says.
Closing the achievement gap between rich and poor is an ambitious project, and it will take more than five weeks of Stay & Play to achieve it.
But we shouldn't underestimate the role programs such as Stay & Play can play in reducing that gap, by intervening with at-risk children at an early age.
Getting children into the library is a way to instill them with a love of reading, books and learning. Children who never go to the library are missing out on one of the most valuable resources in their community.
If there was anything that disappointed me about Stay & Play, it was the inconsistent, sometimes low, attendance. Kids can benefit greatly from this program, and it would be great to see more families take advantage of it.
The librarians in charge of Stay & Play know that it can be tough for families to get to the program, and that there are always going to be families who sign up for it but do not attend. I'm optimistic that positive word-of-mouth will convince more families to check out the program, but it's clear that other strategies for increasing attendance are needed.
One of the things that makes Stay & Play special is its relaxed atmosphere and open door. Families that miss the first sessions are still welcome to attend, and it isn't unusual to see new faces.
Cannon and Tyrone began attending Stay & Play during week two, and Schenectady resident Lisa Davis brought her granddaughter Maliah, who recently turned one, to the program during week three.
"This is the first time she's been around so many kids," Davis said, as we watched Maliah play with a xylophone. "I thought it would be good for her. She's an only child. ... I think it's nice." She nodded her head with a smile. "We're going to be back."
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.
Other stories in this series
- How Schenectady first-graders learn to read
- Library leads effort to target literacy from birth to 8 years old
- City to roll out elementary summer school program
- Partnership brings early educators, district together
- In Rochester and Providence, cities push literacy
- A look at other New York literacy programs
- Get involved: Child literacy resources