Play & Learn

Steve Mendez is helping to change the lives of young people, one adventure at a time.

United Way engages our community, mobilizes volunteers, and strengthens local nonprofits to achieve measurable results and change lives in the areas of education, safety, and health. Steve Mendez, director of marketing at United Way of Dane County, shares this message and works to build partnerships with local for-profit organizations that realize how important this work is and want to get involved as sponsors, donors, and volunteers.

United Way created Play and Learn sites, of which there are 34 in Dane County, as a strategy to make more children ready to learn by the time they reach kindergarten. In 2011, 41 percent of Madison children entering kindergarten did not have the skills necessary to be successful in school—these children start school behind their peers, and typically stay there. United Way aims to increase kindergarten readiness to 75 percent in Dane County by 2013. Play and Learn sites not only give children the opportunity for quality play experiences, but they also provide parents with free skills and resources necessary to take a successful role as their child’s first and most important teacher. In 2011, 2,329 parents and caregivers received education and support as their child’s first teacher through Play and Learns and our home-visitation program.

Play and Learn at East Towne

Leadership at East Towne Mall approached United Way in 2010 with interest in building a play area with a community-focused element. I worked with my team and East Towne to secure the annual sponsorship of Oscar Mayer, which is committed to promoting healthy lifestyles through play. With the additional support of CUNA Mutual Group and Alliant Energy, the site now hosts two formal Play and Learn sessions per month, led by initiative partner Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin. Outside these sessions, however, the space needed to offer self-guided educational play for children and their parents. This is one feature where the area is really different from others.

I modeled the play area, which is open to children during regular mall hours, after our Born Learning Trails, which are outdoor self-guided play trails in local parks. They encourage parent-child interaction in the form of storytelling; imagination; identification of letters, numbers, and things in nature; and movement. I designed an actual “dirt” trail into the carpet and used the alphabet to guide kids and parents around the area. Familiar animals and letter blocks dot the trail, and a tree climber in the middle adds visual height. Interactive panels ask parents to engage their children in talk and movement. Hopscotch adds in numbers. By bringing the outdoors in, we created a space where kids can play and learn “outside,” even when it’s too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer.

To learn more, go to unitedwaydanecounty.org/born-learning.