Focusing On The Child: EveryStep's Play & Learn Program

EveryStep facilitates a number of programs that  provide medical and social services for women, children and families, adults and seniors, and communities across Iowa. In recognition of National Children's Day, which took place on Sunday, June 9, EveryStep highlights one of our many programs and facilitators who touch children's lives: Play & Learn. 

Katie McKenzie has been an early childhood educator her whole career. Working with children and families as a classroom teacher, professional home child care provider, adult education trainer, Blank outreach educator and most recently as the Community Literacy Specialist, a United Way of Central Iowa Women United funded program, at EveryStep.

McKenzie coordinates literacy initiatives within the community. The initiatives focus on increasing the implementation of literacy-based activities in the care setting or in the home with the goal of increasing school readiness, improving third grade reading scores and ultimately increasing graduation rates.

Whether in a childcare center setting or at community-based programs, McKenzie is always looking to encourage engagement between adults and the children for whom they provide care.

This interaction encouragement can be seen first-hand through the Play & Learn program McKenzie facilitates in the community.

At Play & Learn, "it's about understanding the value of interaction and play," McKenzie says, adding that if an adult changes their behavior, such as putting down their phone and engaging with the child, the child benefits in all areas of development.

During the summer, the Play & Learn program heads outside. You'll find chidden and their caregivers playing and interacting at a different park each day of the week for eight weeks in Des Moines or West Des Moines.

The child-directed, open-ended activities promote playful learning and are designed to promote school readiness and young children’s skills in all developmental areas. Programs are designed for caregivers to stay and play with their children.

The program, which is nearing its 14th year, attracted more than 1,200 participants last year.

Play & Learn satisfies a need for caregivers to connect with each other and to provide their children a safe, positive, caring place to truly learn through play. The groups give children the opportunity to learn, to interact with other children and experience developmental activities  they night not have available at home. Also, the group offers families a way to connect with community-based services and resources.

"I see the positive results everyday," McKenzie says of the interaction between a child and his or her caregiver. "And Play & Learn is fun for the children and their caregivers. The kids get a book to build their home library and a snack, the adults get to connect.

McKenzie recalls one boy in particular who benefited from Play & Learn. The boy and his father began attending the group when he was just 2 ½ years old. The father had been concerned about some of the child's behavior and development.

The father had sought out opportunities like Play & Learn as a way to help him become ready to learn when he entered school. When they began attending the sessions, the boy showed many challenges in the areas of speech, self-control, self-regulation, and social and emotional development.

McKenzie and other Play & Learn facilitators encouraged the father to continue coming back with his son. And so, each week for two years, they attended a Play & Learn session. Over time, McKenzie and others noticed small changes in the boy's interactions with other children.

By the time the boy was 4 and preparing to enter preschool, McKenzie noted that he was ready to participate fully in the preschool program thanks to the support he and his father received from the program.

In another instance, a mother brought her two children to the group last winter. The children clung to their mother and were too scared to interact with other children. But just last month, the oldest daughter played parallel of her mother for the first time, happily engaging with the materials.

"Providing children the opportunity to have repeated experiences to practice skills helps kids be successful in all their developmental areas," McKenzie notes.

You can search for upcoming Play & Learn events at

Photo: Adriana Flores plays with her son at a recent Play & Learn group. Play & Learn satisfies a need for caregivers to connect with each other and to provide their children a safe, positive, caring place to truly learn through play.