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Play’s the thing in new program

Adult school’s sensory enrichment class benefits through movement
By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein The Press-Tribune
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Five-year-old Jack Marrow manned a pulley contraption last Friday as he prepared to unleash a backpack filled with beans on an unsuspecting balloon. After tugging a rope hand-over-hand, he let loose the bag to the sound of a deafening pow! echoing throughout the hall. It might have been all fun and games for Jack, but his brain was picking up developmental skills that are likely to help him throughout his academic career and beyond. That’s the theory behind a new parent education program aimed at helping boost preschool-aged children’s motor skills and coordination through fun activities that stress movement, sensation and play. Offered through the Roseville Adult School, the weekly sensory enrichment class is based on occupational therapy research that shows children do better in school when exposed to a variety of sensory experiences. “The way the brain processes everything is through our senses,” said Myra Todrank, the program’s teacher and an occupational therapist. “When little kids go off to kindergarten, they’re going to need to have a lot of concepts. Their body needs to go through and under and around and between. “Once the body gets the information it needs, then they can organize and sit still,” she added. It’s a need that might have sounded odd before the advent of video games, cartoon cable channels and Club Penguin, but studies show today’s kids don’t get that brain- and body-building movement past generations did. “It’s an opportunity for us to explore different sensations and spend time together,” said Baljit Atwal, whose son, Rayan, 4, was funneling corn kernels into a balloon emblazoned with his initials. “And I think the reality is there’s a lot more screen time today.” Indeed, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of children who bike, swim and fish has declined by more than 20 percent since 1995. And the Kaiser Family Foundation reports the average American child spends more than five hours a day in front of a screen – TV or computer. Fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and physical fitness all take a hit – aspects experts call key for success later in school. “In our day we’d just go out to play until dark,” Todrank said. “I think they need to be doing it themselves rather than watching an animated character do it.” Parents attend each class with their child, and split the 2½-hour session between inside and outside activities at the Church of Christ, where the Roseville Adult School rents space for the program and also for its parent-participation preschool co-op. About a half-dozen joined the initial class, which lasts six weeks. Recent indoor tasks have included making sculptures from shaving cream, tumbling across bubble wrap and shaving blocks of ice. Outside, children can have free reign over a playground that boasts a fragrant “sensory garden” and Indiana Jones-style zip line. The balloon-popping backpack is a favorite of Jenny Szillinsky’s son, Owen, 4. “He loves it and really wants the hand-over-hand heavy work,” she said, adding the class “really puts some theory behind what they want.” More obviously academic tasks also await. Last Friday, Nicholas Frantti, 5, outlined numbers on a board with mini-marshmallows and snack crackers, while Owen shot a rocket at an alphabet poster after his mom called out a letter. The projects help with oral and fine motor skills, Todrank said. She said she hopes parents take some of the ideas and techniques home after the course is over. “I feel like it’s really important right before that kindergarten age, just because they are going to be expected to have to sit and have the school structure,” she said. “And also to teach the parents some new ideas where, if their kids are really, really aroused, what are some things that can help bring them back down.”