County-organized play dates start early friendships
Each weekday from 10 to 11 a.m. on one of the playgrounds in Leelanau County, children up to age six can be found playing and socializing while their parents bond and share parenting tips.
“We have five playgroups every week that are open to everybody in and around the community,” said Michelle Klein, director of personal health at the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department. “There's five different sites, in Northport, Maple City, Grellick Ville, Leland and Suttons Bay.”
Each playgroup has a facilitator who plans a few activities for the kids, provides a snack and talks with parents.
The playgroups offer children and parents the ability to socialize and form friendships, said Klein.
“One of the issues that many families have up here is isolation. We're geographically very far apart,” she said. “If you don't have a lot of family up here, it's really hard to connect with other parents of young kids and be supported in that way.”
The playgroups are funded by the Leelanau Early Childhood Services Millage, which was passed nearly two years ago.
The millage raises $700,000 annually for five years to pay for programs and services to support the development of children from conception to age six.
In addition to play groups, the program hosts family events and provides home visits as well as support.
“We have staff that are connecting with families in their homes, and the home visits are kind of cool, because it's truly anything the family needs,” Klein said. “There's a lot of parenting support and providing information about whatever it is the parents may be concerned about. It could be parenting, or toilet training, or breastfeeding or child nutrition, or stress, parental stress.”
The program has community health workers, licensed social workers, nurses and a dietician.
Klein said they also have certified lactation consultants that can help with breastfeeding.
All of these services are offered at no charge to the families to help support the early development of the children.
“It really, truly can have lifelong impacts for those kids that are growing up, and then, over the long term, that impacts our whole community,” Klein said. “When we have families that are strong, and kids that are strong, we have higher graduation rates, we have higher employment — it just goes on and on.”
Klein said the goal of these programs is to invest in the children when they’re young, so there’s less need for corrective action later.
“It's everything from kids being more ready to be in kindergarten, more likely to graduate, less likely to get into drugs and issues in school,” Klein said.
The programs also help parents become self-sufficient, she said. "They have mentors or folks that can help them navigate what can be complicated systems to reach their goals.”