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All About Community: Encore’s Healthy Play Initiative

Encore Stage and Studio

In the spirit of community, sharing, and giving, we want you to hear from four of our teaching artists that work with “the Healthy Play Initiative” (HPI), a program created in 2016 to partner with the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) to provide enriching creative play for the children of families experiencing food insecurity in Arlington. Read on to find out– from those closest to the program — just what makes HPI so special.


Mara Stewart, Teaching Artist:“HPI is one of my favorite classes to teach. I feel like I always leave with a smile and a new experience. It has taught me so much about communication. Even when we can’t speak the same language, we are able to create a positive experience and learn from one and another. For most of the kids, this is their first time in a classroom setting. Healthy play focuses on engaging and dynamic activities. We sing, we dance, we color, we play outside, and we learn about healthy food choices. We focus on transitioning from one activity to the next, sharing and expressing ourselves. This program helps us meet kids in the community that we otherwise might not ever get to know. It is an amazing experience to see these children week after week and watch them grow. The first day we meet a child, they often don’t participate or speak- and after a few weeks they blossom. They are engaged, singing, and are excited to come to HPI, and to me–that is the best part.”


Caolan Eder, Arts Apprentice:“To me, HPI is all about community. The children who participate get a chance to play together in a safe setting and make new friends, learning to cooperate in a group as they prepare for the structured environment of school. The program also helps with communication skills. Many of the children live in non-English-speaking homes and struggle to connect with people outside of their families, so finding new ways of interacting really expands their worlds. I remember well how one child’s whole face lit up when she and I discovered that we spoke a common language and could explain ourselves to each other. The parents and caregivers build community through HPI, as well. In addition to giving them a breather from the responsibilities that come with raising a family, the program allows adults to form a network of people with shared experiences.”

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Madaline Langston, Education Programs Manager:“HPI has made me more patient. Most of the children that I have had the pleasure of serving are learning English and are trying to do their very best. In the classroom, we focus on listening, focus, and engaging students’ motor skills. HPI is a way to provide social interaction with peers. They learn how to make friends. When I first meet most of our HPI participants, I’ve noticed that they usually only interact with their families or friends. I recall one young boy who had just arrived from Peru and did not speak English. I used my cell phone to translate Spanish to him and he smiled and then slowly pronounced Spanish words to me and I spoke to him in English. So cute and funny at the same time. From that point on, he came to the classes with a smile on his face.”


Alana Gibson, Arts Apprentice:“ I’ve become more attentive to the children as people and not just children who are unaware of their surroundings and circumstances. HPI is such a meaningful program because, for the most part, this is the only exposure to English speakers that the children get if they don’t go to classes. It’s also meaningful to Encore because it makes us more culturally aware and understanding, which helps us standout in the region and theater community. A few weeks ago, at the Arlington Mill location, we had a pair of siblings that came in because they didn’t have school. Mara, the lead teacher, told me that just a year ago, these siblings spoke almost no English. I was completely shocked because if she hadn’t told me that, I would have never known. So I’m sure that them coming to the program in combination with their language class helped with this amazing feat! In the classroom, I try to focus on being caring, but also keeping some structure. Most of the children are in the house all week with a parent so I want them to have a chance to run around, but I also want to start to help them get the understanding of how a classroom would work at a real preschool. I’m hopeful that HPI plays a real role in preparing these kids for school as they grow older.”

It’s through the generous support of our donors that we are able to bring programs like “the Healthy Play Initiative” to our community here in Arlington. We believe that this type of outreach and engagement is essential for our mission of bringing “Theatre by kids, for kids” to all types of children and families. The empathy, problem solving, and creativity born in the classroom extends far beyond remaining active in the arts–the skills gained through theatre education can last a lifetime.

Pictures for the Day

Today, catch a glimpse into … Greenbrier Learning Center, which reaches children in grades three through five with Learning ROCKS!, an after-school program and seven-week summer camp whose major focus is language and literacy, and helps parents support their children’s education as well as their own skill development.

GLC’s Learning Links AmeriCorps program just finished its second year with some great results: 87% of children improved their reading last year and 62% even improved by two or more instructional levels. The Corps Members ultimately serve as a critical link across the three main aspects of a child’s day: at school, after school, and at home.

Late this spring, AmeriCorps members, our staff, students, and families, all teamed up to clean up the Four Mile Run trail in south Arlington — and awards were given for the strangest, longest, and most beautiful items found on the trail. Check it out!















7 Questions – Patricia M. Donnelly (Literacy Council of Northern Virginia)

Many Catalogue cheers for today’s “7 Questions” guest … Patricia M. Donnelly, Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia. Serving an area where 120 different languages are spoken, the LCNV offers adult education in reading, writing, speaking, and understanding English to over 2,300 students a year.

Interested in learning more? Read onwards … and, swing by “Reading: A Family Affair” on Saturday, March 19 from 9:30 AM – 2:30 PM in Falls Church. Kids can meet Clifford the Big Red Dog, watch the Bob Brown Puppets, learn origami, write and illustrate their own stories, and then take home a free book!

1. What was your most interesting recent project, initiative, partnership, or event?

The Literacy Council initiated Reading: A Family Affair just a few years ago. Compared to fundraising dinners with live and silent auctions, this event is family-friendly and free, brings books to life with the help of local artists, and (most importantly) open to the Literacy Council’s clients. The event is designed for them. The fundraising comes from Corporate and small business sponsorships, who are willing and eager to see a community-based, free, literacy event in their neighborhood. And it’s a lot of fun!

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