A chubby toddler waddles over, basket full of plastic fruits and vegetables in tow. With stumbling grace, he hands over the colorful toys to Michelle Kapreilian. She counts each one aloud. “One, two, three ...”
It looks like play, but it’s so much more, said Kapreilian, the executive director of Forty Carrots Family Center.
Among the center’s many outreach programs, Forty Carrots organizes Partners in Play, a series of 15 free weekly parenting classes in all eight Sarasota County public libraries. The classes are designed to help parents and caregivers understand their child’s development and discover techniques to help them teach appropriate behaviors and manage difficult ones.
You know when people joke that babies don’t come with instruction manuals? Partners in Play is almost a response to that; except there are no manuals. Just 45 free-flowing minutes of under-five-year-olds acting silly, and their parents acting sillier along with them.
Trained facilitators, all of whom have early childhood and parenting education expertise, encourage parents to let their children lead. They play for 30 minutes and then have circle time for 15. Parents learn about the importance of things like eye contact with their toddler, and how to foster a language-rich environment by narrating even the most mundane of tasks. The classes also provide an opportunity for parents to create networks of support.
“Parenting is an important job, but we expect people to do it without help,” Kapreilian said. “Many times, the only thing we can draw from is our own experience, and that may not always be a good experience.”
Classes are capped at 12 to allow for a more intimate setting. The cap also means that they sometimes have to turn people away. Kapreilian said the demand is indicative of just how few free opportunities there are for families with young children.
April Klaiss, a mother of two, has been coming to the classes since the birth of her first son. She often stands in line an hour ahead of time to make sure she gets one of the coveted spots. The classes have made a difference in the way her sons socialize, she said, and they have helped her build a network of fellow parents.
“There really aren’t a lot of free resources for parents,” Klaiss said. “If you have questions about your child’s growth or development you can get them answered here in a nonjudgmental way.”
Partners in Play is but one of the programs run by Forty Carrots. They have more than a dozen others, including CYESIS, a teen parent program that runs out of Riverview and North Port High Schools. CYESIS provides free parenting education classes to pregnant and parenting teens.
One of the things that sets Forty Carrots apart, Kapreilian said, is the center’s emphasis on mental health. They began incorporating therapy and mental health classes; it’s an aspect of parenting and growing up that, Kapreilian said, is not talked about enough.
Last year, the center partnered with the all-boys charter school Visible Men Academy for weekly Drama Discovery Therapy groups that encourage kindergarteners and first-graders to communicate effectively and share their feelings in a constructive way.
Recognizing the harmful stigma attached to teen parenting, the center’s TAPP program also offers a support group and mental health class for teen parents in the Manatee County School System.
Forty Carrots has also recently partnered with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading. The campaign is part of a nationwide effort to increase the number of children who read proficiently by the end of third grade by ensuring that more children have access to resources that help them reach their literacy milestones.
“Humming is a good early literacy skill because you’re still saying all the words in your head, so you’re setting your child up for silent reading,” facilitator Katie Schaeffer shares with the circle on a recent Thursday.
Kapreilian understands firsthand the value of the center’s programming. Before rising to the role of director, she started out as a client at Forty Carrots. She had moved from Boston to Sarasota with an infant daughter and just dropped in on the classes as a new parent looking for guidance. From a prevention standpoint, she added, helping families with young children is the best investment.
“In order for children to be ready by third grade, it has to happen before Pre-K,” Kapreilian noted. “It happens at home.”
The toddler with the fruit basket waddles over again. More toys in tow, he stares intently, at me this time. My turn to play.
“One, two, three ...”