The children we serve may not have gone to the beach for Spring Break, but they weren’t sitting home alone either! Playtime Project held its first week-long camp of the year utilizing The SPACE: Free Art for All at the Beltway Plaza Mall in Greenbelt, MD during the first week of April. You heard that right: Playtime in a mall!
Playtime’s partnership with Free Art originated because we were both trying to serve children living in this Prince George’s County community. After our first conversation with founder and executive director Shaymar Higgs, we knew that we wanted to see what Playtime programming could look like in this nontraditional community space. In February, we began organizing Pop-Up Playtime events in the mall’s airy atrium, which has led to a weekly Playtime Program. We sat down with our Prince George’s County Program Manager, Bryanna Beamer, to find out more:
You run Playtime’s two shelter-based programs in the county. Can you talk about the need you see for community-based Playtime programs in Prince George’s County?
Many of our families who move out of a shelter lack access to resources that could help stabilize their situation or improve the lives of their children. I have had parents ask for references to lawyers, transportation assistance, childcare, tutoring, and everything in between. Some things we are able to directly help with but many others, we can only refer them to another organization. The biggest challenge I see in Prince George’s County is that the families and kids don't feel as connected to the community. Transportation is limited, the hotel shelters include both hotel guests and shelter residents, which means kids don't know who they can hang out with today and expect to see tomorrow. Our partners at Free Art for All provide an intentional space to connect community members to one another and with support services.
What has the response been from the families and children you’ve interacted with at this new site?
Some of the families who participate in Free Art’s programming are former Playtime families who have moved to permanent housing nearby, as the space we use sits within a mall next to an apartment complex where many of our shelter families move. We serve families who we met at Shepherd’s Cove or Warm Nights shelters, as well as Spanish-speaking families in the community who come to the mall. The parents are appreciative of the continuum of care and the kids are excited to be in a space dedicated to their interests. In the short time we've been there, we have been able to serve nearly 50 children and offer support to their families, whether we are giving them an opportunity to unplug, make friends, or connect with community resources they didn't know about.
What are the benefits of having Spring Break Camp for the children and families at your program site?
We work with low-income families who don't have the luxury of taking five days off to care for their child during Spring Break. For many parents, our free Spring Break programming allows parents to confidently continue earning a living to support their families knowing that their children will be cared for. For many of the kids, their alternative to Playtime's Spring Break would have been to sit in the house of a relative or stay home alone, in either case, most likely bored. Our Spring Break Camp opened their eyes to science activities, social-emotional skills, field trips, and making new friends. It gave them something they could brag to their friends about when they went back to school, something they could look forward to and feel good about.
What are some of your favorite moments that have happened at Playtime’s Spring Break Camp this year?
One of my favorite moments was coming back from the Natural History Museum and seeing all but two sets of eyes completely closed, wiped out from the fun day they had. Monday morning, all I heard was how excited the kids were to stay up "until 2 in the morning” since they didn't have school the next day, and each morning after, they told me they actually went to bed by 10 because of how tired they were from the activities. That is a successful day!
Our trip to Six Flags was another favorite moment because it was many of the kids' first time visiting an amusement park. So many of them were excited to ride their first roller coaster or eat funnel cake or watch one of the dance shows. Even with the cloudy, rainy weather, we used it to our advantage - because the lines were short, everyone was able to do nearly every single ride they wanted!