The early years of a child’s life are some of the most important for development as the child learns how to socialize and interact with others. For children in Dallas-area neighborhoods, that process is made easier through the efforts of Juega Conmigo.
Spanish for “play with me,” Juega Conmigo is a program created by the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences Center for Children and Families that works with children from their birth to the age of three and their parents. It focuses on guided play sessions for the children where parents learn child-rearing skills and child development.
“We call it a playful learning class,” said Margaret Owen, director of the Center for Children and Families. “There are routines. There’s knowledge about good parenting practices that are conveyed. The children participate in activities that involve music and stories and physical activities along with peer interaction.”
Owen said that most programs that are somewhat equivalent involve dropping the children off and separating them from their parents, but Juega Conmigo aims to reach both children and parents simultaneously.
Juega Conmigo is also unique because it is bilingual, offered primarily in Spanish, allowing the program to cater to the many Spanish-speaking families in the metroplex. Owen said that many of these families are isolated and that Juega Conmigo forms social support for them where they gain new friendships and knowledge about other resources for them in the community.
Juega Conmigo, which started in the Bachman Lake area in 2011, has recently expanded to Vickery Meadow, Pleasant Grove and Plano, allowing the program to reach out to even more families.
“We went to Vickery Meadow and Pleasant Grove because community leaders came to our program, and they said we want to have this program in our community,” said Adriana Villa Baird, program director for Juega Conmigo. “So we trained volunteers to take the program to those areas.”
Villa Baird, who has been working with children since she started an internship with the Red Cross in Columbia in 1997, said she has seen the way that programs like Juega Conmigo change over time. She said in the past professionals would present themselves as the experts about children, whereas now the field is more about giving parents the knowledge to be the experts because they are the ones who ultimately spend more time with children.
Despite the program’s focus on Spanish-speaking families, it also is offered to English-speaking families as well. Child learning and development and psychology junior Diana Rodriguez, who works as a registrar for Juega Conmigo, said they also have several workers who do not speak Spanish.
“We have a couple of people that just speak English,” she said. “But we have this little cheat sheet with them and it’s sort of the very basic ‘Hi, how are you?’” So it’s pretty basic stuff, plus little extra things that we would use just within the program.”
Rodriguez, who wants to be a clinical worker, said her time with Juega Conmigo has helped her by showing the more serious sides of working with children.
“I’m learning a lot of body language because children don’t really talk, so you sort of have to engage in what they’re saying with their body,” she said. “You kind of have to read what their body language is saying, because in (domestic violence) a lot of people aren’t going to say ‘Oh yeah, my husband hits me,’ they’re going be like ‘I’m fine.’”
She said that part of the program focuses on a longitudinal study that observes and records the children’s development in terms of speaking. One of its goals is to get the children to vocalize their needs rather than simply pointing at an object, she said.
Rodriguez said that Juega Conmigo also focuses on teaching the children the sign language symbol for “more.” She said that doing this allows them to another way to specifically communicate what they want.
She said gaining the trust of the parents was a challenge for her at Juega Conmigo. Once the parents saw that she was genuinely there out of a interest in the children and wasn’t there just to use the program as a resume filler, they started to open up to her.
Owen said another struggle for the program is raising the funds to keep the program going since it’s provided free of charge.
Another aspect that Juega Conmigo offers is a partnership with Children’s Medical Center that allows pediatric residents to visit the parents and children. Owen said it works for both the parents and the residents.
“The (pediatric residents) are getting experience in a good community program and lots of observational experience,” she said. “We think that the parents get a lot more comfortable with talking to medical providers when they see them there in their Juega Conmigo experience. We really think it’s a really good foundational experience for these families, building upon the early origins of school readiness, which involves playful learning supported by a supportive caregiver.”