In Pittsburgh, Young Children Learn While They Wait

A new public art project at transit stops aims to teach early literacy skills and improve communication between young children and their parents.

Ever thought that waiting for the bus was a waste of time? Experts in Pittsburgh may have figured out how to make the daily commute educational.

The Fred Rogers Company developed a new public art project that aims to teach early literacy skills and improve communication between young children and their parents. It’s a new “while you wait” learning game that has taken the place of advertisements in 23 transit shelters and 10 Port Authority light rail cars in the Pittsburgh region.

The game, titled “WORD PLAY,” is a large, game board-like display featuring vocabulary words and matching icons that all relate to a certain theme. August’s theme, for example is “Summer Fun;” it includes words like: caterpillar, strawberries, and flip-flops. Above the pictures are question prompts for parents to ask their kids while waiting for public transit. WORDPLAY

Margy Whitmer, media producer and WORD PLAY project manager at the Fred Rogers Company, explained the motivation behind the question prompts to Pittsburgh public radio station WESA. “There are some prompts up there because sometimes it’s hard to get started so things like, ‘Look at your favorite word, look at the picture, what’s your favorite picture? Tell me a story about it. Tell me about ice cream, what’s your favorite flavor?’ Or parents can take a picture of their child making up a story,” Whitmer said.

The beginning of the school year is the best time to encourage young learners to talk about their experiences because it helps kids jumpstart their vocabularies before school begins. “We just wanna make people aware of that time that they can spend with their children, and we really are hoping we can get these kids to get their literacy skills, their pre-literacy skill up to snuff so that they’re ready for school, so that it’s not so hard,” Whitmer said.

Research shows grade-level reading proficiency is an essential step toward increasing the number of children from low-income families who succeed academically, graduate from high school on time, and succeed in the workforce.

“Research has determined that children who are read to and talked to and are exposed to words from birth end up having incredible vocabularies,” Whitmer told the Trib Live. “Communicating with a child, and a child communicating with you, is so important to the child’s total healthy growth.”

In addition to boosting reading comprehension and vocabulary, one of the main goals of WORD PLAY is to encourage fun, casual conversation between parent and child. “We want them to have fun with it, to take a few minutes out of their hectic, over-scheduled, busy, stressful day and just play Word Play,” said Whitmer. “That’s why it’s called ‘Word Play.’ The play is so important to kids; it’s the work of kids, so it’s part of their development.”

The game also includes a telephone number that parents can text to receive more questions for children to answer after they study the poster. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the questions in greater detail:

“Welcome! 1st clue: Look at the picture and count the words starting with S. Reply FOUR (text message) to guess 4 or FIVE to guess 5,” reads the first message in one game. The next clue invites the child to find the lake on the poster and identify the first letter in the word.

The game has received funding to continue on for the next few months, thanks to its sponsors: The Sprout Fund, The Grable Foundation, and the James F. McCandless Charitable Trust. September’s theme is set to be “space adventure,” and a number of community organizations, such as libraries and childcare centers, have agreed to support the effort by displaying smaller posters of the game in their facilities.

As WESA reported, the program has been well received, and when students were asked if they were having fun with WORD PLAY, they all shouted, “YES!” Leave it to Pittsburgh to make waiting for the bus productive and engaging.

Published August 29, 2013