New play space inspires learning through play
By Daniel Bejarano
Water has been at the heart of Hunts Point since the Indians and colonial times, so when Hunts Point Alliance for Children decided to open Karuna Kids’ Space Place, an early childhood education space for toddlers and kids ages 3 to 5, a boat seemed the perfect structure for the center.
By bringing the best resources to aid in children’s formative years, the center at 889 Hunts Point Ave. creates an uplifting environment for that education, said Maryann M. Hedaa, HPAC’s Managing Director and the center’s founder.
The boat is just one feature of the center. More important is having engaged parents who foster their children’s curiosity, said Sabrina Silverstein, the center’s director, who sometimes addresses children as “mijo” or “mija,”― “my son” or “my daughter,” in Spanish.
“The more words kids learn the better they will do in the future,” said Silverstein, a teacher with more than 10 years of experience. What looks like blocks, puzzles and child’s play is in fact building the foundation for children’s future education.
“Math and geometry problems will make more sense later on in their lives,” she added. “By building problem solving skills we are educating the future architects or engineers.”
Or the future chefs, as Dahiana Lessard, one of Karuna’s childhood associates said about a 4-year-old who after playing with the boat’s kitchen said that he wanted to be a chef.
“Maybe he doesn’t have the materials at home to show that off. We have all the tools for kids to learn. There’s no reason why parents shouldn’t come here,” she said.
With a slide, rocking boats, colorful cushions in different shapes, large Legos, princess and pirate costumes and a kitchen for children, the boat is the centerpiece of Karuna. “We have an Upper East Side kid’s place in Hunts Point,” said Hedaa, who also helped design the boat.
Hedaa has been combating the lack of services for young kids’ education in the neighborhood for more than 12 years through projects like Karuna. “We want the best for our kids,” she said.
“Water is at the heart of the Hunts Point community. Captain Peter Pan and children’s stories take place in ships,” she added. The boat “stimulates children’s imagination.”
Karuna Kids was created last January as a joint effort of The Hunts Point Alliance (HPAC), Global Colors and Karuna Charitable Foundation. The latter is the main donor of a long term grant that made the center possible, but won’t disclose the amount of its donation.
The idea behind Karuna Kids began in 2008 as HPAC studied solutions to help young kids succeed. Plans materialized with the building of the center.
All activities at the green-carpeted and two-level space are academic. “Open Play,” for example, is a program that takes place every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Karuna is transformed into a playground under the supervision of Silverstein, Lessard, parents and guardians.
“Create with Me,” the center’s art class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, teaches children drawing, paper manipulation and pop-up projects that are showcased in some walls. It’s conducted by the artist Devin Norik, in collaboration with members of the center.
Karuna Kids also has a children’s library. Take Home Learning Packs in subjects such as reading, math or science are available for as along as parents bring kids to “Open Play” and “Create With Me,” and get to know Karuna’s staff.
Karuna is not a day care program, however. Learning is achieved with parents’ active involvement. “We want this to be their house,” said Silverstein. Karuna’s programs make an impact only if parents or guardians are present.
“This is beautiful. We need something like this for the community. Even a park outdoors is not very safe,” said Edwin Chavez, 42, a father of three kids.
Ana Mateo, 37, a babysitter from the day care program Eleanor’s Rainbow, often comes with five to seven kids to Karuna, which makes her devote her entire time to the kids. “I think this is a marvel,” she said.
Although Silverstein and Lessard get to play with kids all day, their biggest challenge is attracting and reaching out to the community. “We want kids to use this all the time,” said Silverstein.
“Parents will get used to knowing we are there,” said Hedaa. She also reminded that Karuna doesn’t ask for any documentation and doesn’t care about people’s immigration status. The only requirement is to show up. “We want to create a welcoming atmosphere.”
“Education is the path out of poverty, and not just any education but high quality education,” said Hedaa, and added, “We want child, parent, guardian, grandparent to feel at home. Learn to enjoy education.”