ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — Educators in St. Lucie Public Schools are finding new ways to teach the youngest students some of their most important lessons.
It's called "Play With Purpose."
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If you walk into a White City Elementary School classroom, you may just see kindergartners playing with toys. But educators see so much more.
"They are using language, developing language for some of them. They are solving problems, conflict resolution. Just getting along," said teacher Maria Ramkissoon.
Ramkissoon loves watching her students flourish during "Play With Purpose."
"In our schedule, it's after math," Ramkissoon said. "So we definitely want to get through math to get to 'Play With Purpose.'"
It's a new initiative in St. Lucie Public Schools this academic year to bring some of the play back into the classroom, the way kids used to learn before there was a greater focus on testing.
"Little by little, some of that time got taken away and replaced with students having more structure and more academics," Ramkissoon said. "So having it back is very exciting."
The lessons start with a book to build up the students' background knowledge of a topic, like going to the doctor.
Then the toys come out, and so do their imaginations.
"Some of our students don't have those resources. So being able to do that here helps us to build what they know. What they can be exposed to," Ramkissoon said.
Each school has 17 play themes the students rotate through. It costs $10,000 to outfit each school with the program and proper materials.
"We realized that so many of the standards, oral language development, executive functioning skills, math skills, could all be taught through play," said Mary Huffstetter, the early childhood coordinator for St. Lucie Public Schools.
Huffstetter said the school district is trying to get funding to put play in every kindergarten classroom.
"When the kids say, let's play it again, you know you've got them and they're growing and they are going to be where they need to be at the end of kindergarten," Huffstetter said.
"Ultimately, it's just have fun," Ramkissoon said.
Playtime that's as vital as any lesson from a book.
"That's how kids learn the best is through play," Huffstetter said. "Unfortunately, a lot of the play had to be taken out of the classroom for a lot of different reasons and we wanted to infuse that back into the classroom."
The "Play With Purpose" program is currently at White City Elementary School near Fort Pierce and Windmill Point Elementary School in Port St. Lucie.
The program is expanding to three more St. Lucie County public schools by the end of the year, and the goal is to have it in all of them by next school year.
The St. Lucie County Education Foundation helps fund the program and can match any grants it receives. You can learn more about that organization and its contributions to local education by clicking here.