Once a week, Linda Spainhour and her 3-year-old son, Tristan, meet other Lexington 2 mothers, grandmothers and children for a two-hour play group called JumpSTARt.
Gayle Oree, grandmother to 4-year-old Alicia Oree and 2-year-old Isaiah Oree, comes to Toddler Time, bringing along another child she cares for, Ja-Kayla Robinson.
But these are no ordinary play dates.
The time spent in deliberate, structured play at the Granby Education Center in Cayce is at the heart of STAR, a parent education program that director Gina Henderson calls "one of Lexington 2's best kept secrets."
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"It is a different type of relationship," Spainhour said of the friendships she has formed with STAR educators and other mothers. "You are not coming to it as friends first. You are there learning about education and that allows you to be more open about the challenges."
"Starting Together ... Arriving Ready," or STAR, is aimed at assisting and educating parents of infants to 6-year-olds.
A parent educator makes two home visits monthly. One day a week, the children and a parent or grandparent attends an age-specific play group at the Granby Education Center.
Once a month, while their children are at play, parents gather for "chat time" to air problems and share solutions.
"The networking of our parents is so important," said Henderson, the district's parenting and family services director and early childhood consultant.
Families are screened for acceptance in the program according to criteria that includes income and the particular needs of the children. Many of the 47 families currently enrolled are low-income, but Henderson said she aims to reach parents of all income levels who want to learn ways to encourage baby and toddler development.
With a parent educator's help, issues such as developmental delays and discipline methods are assessed.
"They are the first teachers and the teachers who will be there for them in life," Henderson said.
A friend from church told Spainhour about the program when her eldest child, Alexis, now 6, was a baby.
"They come in to the home and interact with your children for an hour," she said. "They focus on certain activities for that class, maybe building or colors. All the activities focus on how the child might grasp the concept."
After Tristan was born, Spainhour noticed he wasn't as verbal as her daughter and worried that he might be developing more slowly. That was confirmed by parent educator Linda Davis, who had routinely recorded his progress on certain activities.
"It helped reinforce that I wasn't being an overly protective mother," Spainhour said.
"I learned a lot," she said. "It's interesting to see the different ideas of how to teach one concept to a child. As a parent, you think, how am I going to get that through, and here comes Linda with a new concept."
Oree said the home sessions and playtimes have "opened a whole new world" to her family regarding child development.
She likes that her grandchildren are learning early how to interact with others and share.
"Anything to better them and give them a better start in life, I'll do it," Oree said. "Even at the age of two or three, you can ask them what they want to be."
Last week, during Wednesday's Toddler Time, teacher Sheri Stewartgathered Alicia, Isaiah, and a handful of other children on a colorful rug. It was circle time, and Stewart led the children through a series of songs - favorites like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Jingle Bells - that allowed youngsters to make hand motions, wave stars and shake bells.
"My goal is not necessarily to teach certain skills," Stewart said, "but to teach parents how their children are learning as they play."
Henderson is a passionate advocate for parent education and literacy. She sees the results in the children themselves, who graduate from STAR well-prepared for entrance into kindergarten and elementary grades.
"It is not that any parent is not doing their job," she said. But she believes parents of all incomes can benefit from parenting programs. She meets regularly with other Lexington County districts that have similar opportunities.
The program, which employs one full-time parent educator and two part-time educators, emerged out of the First Steps to School Readiness program created by the General Assembly in 1999. She laments that funding for the STAR program has declined in recent years because of the economy, from a high of $166,000 in its first year, 1994, to about $79,000 this year.
"I think if we had more parenting programs across the state we would have a dropout rate that is significantly lower," Henderson said.