Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops in their first five years of life, and the experiences and interactions a child has with adults during this time are crucial to their success, says Melanie Richardson ’93. And here’s where she sees a problem: Too many children lack access to quality early childhood experiences that will help them learn key cognitive, social, and emotional skills.
Richardson decided to address this need in her hometown of New Orleans by creating TrainingGrounds, a nonprofit that provides supportive learning environments, offering a variety of programs for parents and educators and a free interactive play center for families with children ages 4 and younger.
“There is a lot of emphasis on K-12 education and school reform, but we know parents are the first teachers and they need support,” Richardson says. “We work with parents and caregivers so they can acquire the skills necessary to providing their children, starting at birth, with a solid foundation for success. We help parents and caregivers with creating quality learning experiences that foster executive functioning skills in their infants and toddlers, such as attentiveness, persistence, impulse control, taking turns, and completing tasks.”
TrainingGrounds accomplishes this through child-directed, play-based learning at its free WE PLAY Center, where kids and their caregivers can play with everything from Play-Doh to trains. Educators are on hand to provide parenting strategies and model positive adult-child interactions. And the nonprofit provides a variety of other offerings—from parent education sessions to breastfeeding support groups for moms to hearing, vision, and speech screenings for children—all at no cost to families.
And Richardson is seeing success stories. She recalls how one man, Chief, and his grandson, Ryan, came to the center every day it was open for a year, going so far as to schedule doctor’s appointments and other family obligations around the center’s hours.
“Chief saw the changes in his grandson’s behavior—he saw Ryan’s language and social and emotional skills developing,” Richardson says. “We also saw changes in the way he interacted with his grandson. He was a lot more patient and he used age-appropriate strategies when communicating, encouraged independence, and engaged in imaginary play with his grandson.
“Not only was Ryan meeting developmental milestones, but his grandfather was also evolving in how he interacted with him. Ryan started preschool last August, and his family attributes much of his success to the time they spent at the WE PLAY Center. The center offered Chief a safe space to ask questions and to practice new skills and techniques with the support of experienced parent educators.”
Richardson’s nonprofit arose out of a specific need in New Orleans. She and her co-founder, Christine Neely, came up with the idea when they realized the city was not able to meet the demand for early childhood education. In 2016, there were not enough spots at government-funded Head Start programs, and only 16 percent of New Orleans children who qualified for the service were able to enroll.
This left a huge percentage of children at home, unable to develop the skills they needed to be successful in the classroom and beyond. Around the same time, Richardson and Neely were working on a community literacy program and hearing from parents who needed help with understanding their children’s stages of development and learning parenting strategies and techniques.
The two began working on what would become TrainingGrounds in 2016, while they juggled part-time jobs and sought assistance from a local start-up incubator. Now, both work full time for the nonprofit, and recently hired their first part-time employee. The first WE PLAY Center opened in April 2017, and by October 2018, so many families were coming, it moved to a larger location.
The results so far are promising, Richardson says. Some 96 percent of parents and caregivers who utilize the WE PLAY Center report an increase in social skills and language development in their child. TrainingGrounds has served more than 500 families and has plans to open a second location in the future. Down the road, Richardson hopes the nonprofit’s model can be implemented in cities nationwide, to help fill the need for early childhood development during the first five years.
“I had early experiences in South Bend that shaped why this is important, and it made me realize that there are similar issues, whether you are in a small town like South Bend, or a city like New Orleans, or a large metropolitan area like Chicago,” says Richardson, who worked at the YWCA and juvenile correctional facility in South Bend while she was studying sociology and management. “While I was a student at Notre Dame and working in the nonprofit sector, I decided I wanted to create a non-profit organization that would focus on strengthening families and offering solutions.”