Learning and Play
7:36 am
Thu August 22, 2013

Turning the Waiting Game into an Educational Game at Pittsburgh Bus Shelters

Teacher Miguel Sague plays Word Play with a group of preschoolers on the South Side.
Teacher Miguel Sague plays Word Play with a group of preschoolers on the South Side.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

It’s a reality for many parents and caregivers in Pittsburgh — you’re stuck waiting for a bus in the city and your kid starts getting bored and antsy.

A new effort is hoping to turn these times into teachable moments.

Instead of advertisements for law firms or universities, 23 bus shelters around Pittsburgh now have a poster adorned with colorful pictures of things such as ice cream, picnics and kiddie pools. The “Word Play” posters are part of an effort from the Fred Rogers Company to get adults talking to and interacting with kids.

“We want them to have fun with it, to take a few minutes out of their hectic, over-scheduled, busy, stressful day and just play Word Play," said Margy Whitmer, a producer at the Fred Rogers Company. "That’s why it’s called 'Word Play.' The play is so important to kids; it’s the work of kids, so it’s part of their development.”

Preschool kids on the South Side have fun playing Word Play.
Preschool kids on the South Side have fun playing Word Play.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Using time spent waiting for a bus talking to kids and having them tell stories and identify pictures helps them build their vocabulary and literacy skills, according to Whitmer.

Last year, a pilot Word Play project, which relied more heavily on technology such as smart phones, was launched with limited success. This version can be done completely without technology.

“There are some prompts up there because sometimes it’s hard to get started so things like, ‘Look at your favorite word, look at the picture, what’s your favorite picture? Tell me a story about it. Tell me about ice cream, what’s your favorite flavor?’ Or parents can take a picture of their child making up a story,” Whitmer said.

On a recent Tuesday, it didn't take much prompting to get a group of preschool kids at a South Side bus stop talking.

Their teacher Miguel Sague asked them a few questions, and the kids excitedly told stories about picnics and bee stings, and even had a robust disagreement over whether something was a worm, caterpillar or lady bug. 

But why have such posters? Parents can talk to their kids about anything — passing cars, birds, nearby buildings. But Whitmer said sometimes, in the bustle of the day and in the midst of being rushed, adults can forget to interact with children.

“We just wanna make people aware of that time that they can spend with their children, and we really are hoping we can get these kids to get their literacy skills, their pre-literacy skill up to snuff so that they’re ready for school, so that it’s not so hard,” she said.  

In addition to the bus shelters, the posters have been placed in 10 T cars. They will be up through October, with a different theme for each month. August’s theme is summer.

“I would love to do this 12 months out of the year, just do it every month with something new,” Whitmer said.

But funding isn’t available for the project long-term. This three-month run is paid for with grants from the Grable Foundation and the James F. McCandless Charitable Trust. Whitmer emphasized the ultimate goal of the posters is to get kids and adults simply talking with one another.

“Fred Rogers used to say that it’s through relationships that we learn the best and grow the best. It’s that human connection,” she said.  

By the end of about half an hour of trying out word play, the group of preschoolers was ready to go to the park.

But when asked if they had fun with the poster and their teacher, they all shouted a resounding, “YES!”