Families

‘Pre- pre-school’ helps kids with developmental delays

Parents attend play and socialization classes with children with developmental delays at the Whatcom Center for Early Learning in Bellingham.
Parents attend play and socialization classes with children with developmental delays at the Whatcom Center for Early Learning in Bellingham. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A warm, welcoming haven for the youngest of children, affectionately dubbed “The Big Blue House” in the Lettered Streets Neighborhood, could also be called a “pre pre-school.”

Carla Hasche, the executive director, and Sue Wu, the classroom teacher, recently talked about the Whatcom Center for Early Learning, which primarily serves children “from birth to 3 years old,” as they put it.

Many of the children served have developmental delays, but typical toddlers also participate in some programs.

“The unusual aspect of our programs is that a parent, guardian or other caregiver is required to be here along with each child,” Hasche said.

Children who are typically developing or with special needs benefit from getting to know each other and by watching each other play.

Sue Wu, Whatcom Center for Early Learning teacher

The center, at 2001 H St. and established in 1973, features a large, fully developed outdoor play area that would fascinate any child. Inside, there are dozens of touching pictures of students along with everything a child could learn from.

“About 15 years ago, one of our staff therapists got in touch with Rusty Keeler, a famed children’s playground designer,” said Wu. “He created an area that entices all five senses.”

Socialization of all children who participate is a primary goal of the classes, which feature three distinct programs, all held weekly for 90 minutes.

“Our goal is to provide an opportunity for children to play with friends and family,” Wu said. “Children who are typically developing or with special needs benefit from getting to know each other and by watching each other play.”

On Mondays, three separate no-cost, year-round play groups are held with 10 students in each group. These are all students with developmental delays who are served in their homes by the center’s staff therapists.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, tuition-based year-round “Sensational Toddler” classes with 10 students are held for any family in the community, both with and without children with developmental delays. Families sign up through the Bellingham Recreation Department.

“This one is exciting for me because I have a grown son with autism and he wouldn’t get invited to play with groups of typical kids while he was growing up in Seattle,” Hasche said.

On Wednesdays during the school year, “Ferndale Toddler Time” – for all children up to 5 years old – is held at the American Legion Post, but students are not required to be Ferndale residents. There is a $2 per child or $5 per family charge per class.

“These Ferndale classes were originally conceived as a way of outreach, or for any parents who might have questions about developmental delays,” Hasche said.

Class activities at the center run the gamut of what all children love – singing, finger painting, playing with the likes of blocks and dolls. Children love making discoveries in the “busy boxes” they can pull out from a shelf.

“Parents get ideas from watching their children play,” Hasche said. “It’s such a learning experience for parents, too. And the children aren’t the only ones who make new friends – so do parents!”

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