February 27, 2005




A typical day at Felicia Truitt's house goes like this: She's up about 4:30 a.m. and then wakes the kids at 5 to get them ready for school.

Truitt works 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m. By the time they've have had supper and finished homework, it's time for bed at 8:30 or 9.
Because that kind of schedule leaves little time for one-on-one with her children, Truitt took time out last week to accompany her son to a school program aimed at giving busy parents and kids some time together and some tools for talking to each other.

Truitt and her 5-year-old, Stephen Moore, were among six sets of parents and students who took part Tuesday in a "Playshop" at South Newton Elementary School.

Organized by South Newton counselor Jeanne Brannock, the Playshop - think workshop, only fun - brought parents, children and teachers together to teach communication and cooperation skills through games and activities.

With families working harder and harder to balance the demands of work, school and extracurricular activities - and with many families headed by time-strapped single parents - programs like the Playshop offer parents and kids a chance to connect with each other, with other families and with the school, Brannock said. And they're gaining popularity in many parts of the country.

"What I hope (families) get out of this is the fact that they can talk to each other," Brannock said. "It's amazing what your children will tell you if you listen."

Brannock first learned about the Playshops several years ago in a seminar by Playshops developer Scott Ertl of Clemmons, near Winston-Salem.

Before his career as an elementary school counselor, Ertl juggled and performed comedy and magic with a circus. Often called upon to teach others to juggle, he noticed that people who were having fun were less self-conscious, more talkative and more open to new ideas.

He based Playshops on that notion. And in the seven years since Ertl put the program together, he's gone all over the country teaching others how to teach through play.

"If you had an anger workshop, they wouldn't come," Ertl said. "But a Playshop, hey, that's fun."

For 90 minutes Tuesday, South Newton students and their parents blew bubbles, played with building blocks and built sculptures of clay. They played with puppets and raced around with balloons between their knees.

The kids grinned and shrieked, and the gym filled with laughter. But there was a point to it all.

The bubbles were an exercise in taking a deep breath to let out frustrations. When they built towers out of blocks, they took turns sharing personal information - something they were good at, their favorite TV shows - every time they added a block.

They made clay sculptures of things that made them proud, like each other. They passed around a ball and talked about what made them happy or sad.

A counselor since 1985, Brannock has seen families grow busier and more stressed. For many, dinner around the table disappeared long ago. And with divorce and blending of families, some children go long stretches of time without even seeing a parent, she said.

Looking to help, Brannock has done two Playshops this year - a session for grades three through five in November and last week's event, for pre-schoolers through second grade. In all, about 30 families took part, she said. She's planning more for next year.

Others are doing the same type of thing. Matt Pasquinilli, co-author of "Behavior Coaching: Step-By-Step Guide To Helping Your Child Improve Behavior at Home and at School," runs an Ohio nonprofit that offers similar activities.

Getting parents, kids and teachers together can help them stop blaming each other for problems at school, Pasquinilli said.

Organized programs also help parents and children get to know each other better, said Alice Leeds, communications director for the Ms. Foundation, which sponsors the annual Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

Being at the workplace helps children learn about careers, but it also helps them learn more about where their parents spend most of their time. And families, which often function as self-contained units, bouncing from school to sports to piano lessons to myriad other activities, don't often mix with others in their own communities, said Leeds.

That's part of what drew Chad Gibson and his 5-year-old, Chad II, to South Newton's program last week.

Aside from church and Wednesday Bible study, the family doesn't get together much with others. Gibson's wife, Shalawn, attended the earlier South Newton program with 8-year-old daughter Jade Smith. They came back with rave reviews. So the Chads showed up last week.

"I felt like it would be good bonding time for me and him," Gibson said. "And it would also give us a chance to bond with other parents and kids."Want to know more?

Several organizations offer programs and information to help young people and their parents get to know each other and communicate better. Here are a couple of places to look: