Once a week, 4-year-old Salaaya Miller-White and her mother, Sanique, turn on a computer and go to school.

The youngster is part of the Play 2 Learn program offered at Cedar Hill Elementary School. During the weekly classes, she and her mother sing, do activities such as putting beads on thread and learn the basics of life.

“She really likes to participate and she’s really tactile,” Sanique Miller-White said of her daughter. “Before, we met at 10:30 (a.m.) once a week, but now it’s 9:30 (a.m.) online for about half an hour, and they sing. They even get to do a little craft (and) stuff like that. They learn about their emotions, happiness, sadness and how to regulate it like ‘OK, if you angry or if you’re sad, how can you help it,’ so she’s been using that.”

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At one point, Salaaya looked up from a book as her mother was talking and exclaimed, “I’m counting!”

The Play 2 Learn program is a Gwinnett County Public Schools-specific early learning program that is in its fifth year — although other school districts around Georgia have their own early learning programs. There are programs available at 42 elementary schools across the county.

“The way Play 2 Learn works is it’s birth to 5 and as long as you live anywhere in Gwinnett County, you can go to any Play 2 Learn program,” Cedar Hill Play 2 Learn co-instructor Beth Richard said. “You don’t necessarily have to live in the attendance zone for the elementary school.”

Miller-White said families gather once a week, some participate digitally now because of the pandemic while others participate in person, and parents participate in class activities with their kids. Salaaya is one of the kids who participates virtually.

“Just like all of the other Gwinnett County students, their parents can pick and choose,” Richard said. “They can either do digital, which we do for 30 minutes, or we have a one-hour in-person session so we do students that come in as well.”

The 4-year-old did come to the school with her mother for one day in December to pick up meals and activity bags that the Play 2 Learn program at Cedar Hill was distributing to its students in partnership with Live Healthy Gwinnett and its partner, Goodr.

Salaaya’s mother said that the virtual learning works for the Play 2 Learn program because the children doing distance learning get asked questions about what the materials they are using from home in an activity look like.

Richard sends out an email to parents in advance to let them know what activities the students will do that week in class so they can make sure they have the materials for those activities ready when the class starts.

Miller-White said a conversation over the computer between teacher and student could go something like this:

“OK, I have my cards,” this child will say

“OK, what color are your cards,” the teacher will ask.

“Oh, this one’s blue, this one’s green,” the child might answer.

“Ok, how many cards do you have,” the teacher would then ask.

“I have four cards,” the child would answer.

“Oh, what if I take away one, how many cards will you have,” the teacher might ask.

“Oh, I’ll have three cards,” the child would say in response.

“It’s like while they’re playing, they’re thinking,” Miller-White said. “It’s learning using your imagination and I think they pick up thing a lot quicker that way.”

Cedar Hill Principal Jose DeJesus said parents came up to school officials at the end of the last school year and thanked them for offering the program and exposing their young children to a school environment at an early age. The school was not one of the original locations to offer the program.

It only came to Cedar Hill in the 2019-2020 school year.

In the program’s first year at Cedar Hill, there was a waiting list of parents wanting to get their children into the program, according to the school’s principal.

“It’s just amazing,” DeJesus said. “Last year was our first year and it just took off like a rocket.”

Salaaya has three older brothers who also attend Cedar Hill, but attend classes virtually. Since the school only began offering the Play 2 Learn program in the 2019-2020 school year, however, she is the first member of her family to participate in it.

“She is definitely a head in terms of (learning) shapes and all,” Miller-White said. “My first-grader wasn’t really good with shapes until maybe the summer before kindergarten when he really got it whereas she already knows triangles and squares and now we’re learning the difference between the square and the rectangle, and she’s a couple of months away from kindergarten.

“She’s (also) counting a lot higher. She knows her letters a lot better and she writes a lot quicker than my other sons were (at her age) too so I do think it’s made a difference.”

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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