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Mystic playgroup for 2-year-olds a fun, inclusive experience

I know a family who was rather concerned that their youngest daughter, who was 2, didn’t talk much. There were no apparent developmental delays; she just didn’t seem to have much to say.

Within a couple of weeks at St. Mark’s Toddler Playgroup, she was, as the old expression goes, “chattering like a magpie.” It seems that at home she didn’t have to talk much; her big sister did it for her!

The Toddler Playgroup opened in 1989, and unfortunately, was forced to close for the first time in 31 years in March 2020 due to COVID-19. It remained closed for the 2020-2021 school year, and will be reopening in the fall. What differentiates the group at St. Mark’s on Pearl Street is that it is exclusively geared for 2-year-olds. The other significant difference is that it is an inclusive program designed for both typically developing toddlers and their peers with special needs who are in Birth to Three, an early-intervention program for kids with learning delays.

This is beneficial to both sets of kids. The Birth to Three children interact with and learn from their typically developing peers, and all of the toddlers are introduced to socializing and sharing with their peers and develop an acceptance of children who have different abilities than they do. It is amazing to witness how much confidence these 2-year-olds build and how much they progress during their time at the Playgroup.

Because of the participation of Birth to Three toddlers, there are regular visits from providers who work with sensory processing, motor skills, and cognitive and social-emotional development. There are also monthly visits from a visiting nurse.

Music plays a large role at the Toddler Playgroup with a visiting musician playing the guitar and leading singing. In recent years, the Playgroup has had a yoga/movement

instructor visit once a month to help all of the toddlers develop their gross motor skills.

And, of course, no preschool program could be complete without a visit from a local firefighter!

The teachers at St. Mark’s Toddler Play Group are experts in the field of early childhood education. Peggy Pearse, a Mystic resident, is a certified Montessori teacher, and Amy Gilbert, the director, has a background, both educational and practical, in working with toddlers who are in Birth to Three.

A third position is currently vacant and will be filled by the fall.

The playgroup is licensed by the state Department of Public Health, and several unannounced visits are made over the course of the year. It should also be noted that while the Toddler Playgroup is a ministry of the Parish of St. Mark’s, it is non-religious. The Board of Directors includes members of the church and others with an interest in the program’s goals. The group is funded primarily by tuition, but tuition does not cover all expenses, so the Playgroup depends on assistance from fundraisers (the annual Trivia Night and Gingerbread House events have been very popular), donations from organizations like the United Way, Electric Boat Employees’ Community Service Association, Mystic Women’s Club, Rotary and generous individual donors. Scholarships are available based on financial need.

The school hours are 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The day is filled with art, sensory activities, music, play – outside when the weather permits – and lunch. When guardians pick their youngster up, they need to check the child’s cubby to retrieve all the various projects that have been created during the morning. Some families may need larger refrigerators and extra magnets!

When Birth to Three children turn 3, most enter their school district’s special education program. The typically developing peers stay until the end of the school year and then move on to one of the excellent nursery schools available in our area such as Noank Baptist, St. Andrew’s, and Calvary in Stonington.

Parents who are interested in enrolling a child in the fall are urged to call (860) 574-5980 and to view the colorful webpage at www.mystictoddlerplaygroup.org.

Robert F. Welt of Mystic is a retired longtime Groton Public Schools teacher.

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