School-Connected Play & Learns

The First 10 Network launched in 2022 as a way to connect First 10 communities to one another so that they can learn about and build on each other’s innovations and adapt them to meet local needs. At our February network meeting, a panel of on-the-ground experts from the First 10 community—facilitators who lead play and learns and the administrators who help organize and promote them—discussed how to structure play and learns.  Our panelists shared ideas for recruiting families and forming creative partnerships with districts, libraries, Head Start agencies, and other community programs.  


First 10 communities are developing collaborative partnerships across early childhood programs and services to develop, facilitate, and promote school-connected play & learns to families with 0-5 year-olds. Including different types of providers in planning ensures that the play & learns best meet the needs of children and families.

Local libraries can be a valuable partner since they offer space and librarians can guest read and provide tours of the library and library website, connecting families to library resources. 

Recruiting Families to Participate in Play & Learns

First 10 Communities use a wide range of recruitment strategies to bring families to play & learns.  Many use social media to inform families of upcoming play & learns sessions and share pictures and agendas of previous sessions. Weekly or monthly newsletters were also popular ways to connect with families and offer resources, such as links to The Basics principle for the week. Some communities start by reaching out to families on Head Start waiting lists. Others conduct child screening at the same time as play & learns so that the families get a glimpse of what is offered at play & learns and are encouraged to participate. 

One novel recruitment idea was to spread awareness of Kinder enrollment with flyers on Superbowl pizza boxes!  

Play & Learn Setups

The panel offered several different strategies for play & learn setups. Examples included: letting children play in a gross motor room during the initial introduction for parents; giving parents activities that they could choose from; and using goodbye bubbles to close the play & learn.

Many First 10 play & learns incorporate The Basics, in a variety of ways: developing a lending library with The Basics books and sensory toys; sharing the Basics video and description via email so that the parents can just talk about it during the play & learns; and/or watching the Basics video with parents and kids, incorporating the kids in watching and interacting with the children on the video, while modeling how to interact with kids for the parents. 

One group added an outdoor component to play & learns and has found it successful in encouraging conversation and connections.

Frequency for Play & Learns:

First 10 communities are testing the number of play & learns sessions offered per registration cycle. In some cases, offering (for example) six sessions has allowed families to commit to shorter lengths of time, while in other cases, offering more sessions has allowed flexibility for families to continue engaging despite missing a session or two.

Offering Virtual Play & Learns Post-Pandemic

Some communities adapted play & learns to occur virtually due to the pandemic.  Some parents still prefer to attend virtually for various reasons, including flexibility and concern about germs/illnesses.  In these instances, books, craft materials, etc. are provided to the virtual participants, just like the in-person participants. 

Offering both in-person and virtual options creates an opportunity to engage with a much wider group of parents and families. One community, for example, startswith virtual session for 1 hour on Saturday and then goes into an in-person play & learns. 

This network meeting was a great opportunity for First 10 communities to hear successful examples of play & learn strategies and gather ideas to take back to their own communities!

Playgroups offer rural families a head start on school (Hechinger Report)

“On a June morning in this rural eastern North Carolina community, about a dozen families grabbed the edges of a rainbow parachute, making plastic balls bounce in its ripples. Grandparents, parents and children switched between water games, parachute activities and swing-sets spread across a playground.

The fun and games are serious business to the group that runs them, the Down East Partnership for Children, a 25-year-old nonprofit that provides educational and health resources to families of young children in rural Nash and Edgecombe counties. The goal of these meetings is to highlight the importance of basic interactions between parents and their kids.

Playgroups are held at least twice a month for families with children from birth to 5 years old. The meetings are a way for families to meet other families, get connected with resources and prepare children for kindergarten. Families often need support in this part of the state, an area struggling to keep up with the economic growth of the high-tech Triangle region, the metropolitan home of the state capital, Raleigh, about an hour away.

‘The ultimate goal of Play and Learn groups is to strengthen [the] parent-child bond,” said Cornelia Singletary, Down East’s family services program manager. “For families who are hesitant about putting their child in a formal child care setting, this is kind of like a little preschool, but you get to be with your child.’”

For the full story, see


“Out of the Books in Kindergarten, and Into the Sandbox”

From today’s New York Times:

As American classrooms have focused on raising test scores in math and reading, an outgrowth of the federal No Child Left Behind law and interpretations of the new Common Core standards, even the youngest students have been affected, with more formal lessons and less time in sandboxes. But these days, states from Vermont to Minnesota to Washington are again embracing play as a bedrock of kindergarten.


“People think if you do one thing you can’t do the other,” said Nell Duke, a professor of education at the University of Michigan. “It really is a false dichotomy.”