Last Saturday morning, a group of parents, kids, and staff mingled and played at the St. Louis Park (SLP) Central Community Center playground. SLP Early Childhood Special Education’s Amy Wink, and Communities Engaging Autism’s (CEA) Beth Dierker greeted the families—all of whom receive some kind of early intervention services through the school district. Preschoolers, along with some younger and older siblings, sought out favorite balls, trikes, bubble-blowers, and sandbox toys. On a table in the shade, popsicles, crackers, and waters offered refreshment. The gathering had the feel of a happy reunion.
These Saturday gatherings began as coffee and tea Google Meets during last winter’s COVID lockdowns. Participants would chat as their children played nearby. Eventually, little hands would grab for screens as kids vied for parents’ full attention. “The kiddos seemed to be in cahoots about ‘all done time’ at the 45-minute mark” Beth Dierker laughed. “We were doing what we could at the time, but felt so helpless to support isolated and stressed families.”
In April, when outdoor gatherings became possible, a playground meet-up routine took shape. More families came and kids, once again, took center stage for the fun. Thanks to this CEA-SLP partnership and a Family Connections Innovation Grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Dierker and Wink are keeping this good thing going all summer. They’re hosting a few weeknight gatherings at St. David’s Center’s gorgeous, musical playground in Minnetonka. “We had 8 families come to our first night at St. David’s,” Amy Wink recalled. “Parents get lots of time to talk. We have extra adults come so that parents can step back. We’ve had a resource person come to share about opportunities like sensory supports for exploring local museums and what inclusion services look like in local parks programs. Moms and Dads seem filled up by the experience. That’s exactly what we’re going for.”
Parents’ conversations often bring up questions and concerns about raising kids who are showing signs of developmental delays. The topics that bubble up are familiar to Wink and Dierker, who work most closely with parents of kids with autism. So, they’ve begun to build “Amy’s Virtual Playground,” as a site that can hold distilled down “nuggets” of information for parents to access anytime. “We want to keep gatherings casual, but specific details or follow-up information is really needed. Hopefully, with consistent gatherings as touch points and a flexible, accessible ‘Amy’s Playground,’ we’ll strike the right mix of connection and support,” Wink explained.