Parents at South Spokane Co-op don’t just bring their children to school. They stay and play and explore alongside them.
When toddlers and preschoolers learn about nature and the environment by digging in the soil and searching for bugs, their moms and dads also get their hands dirty.
As the kids tumble on mats, climb on the jungle gym or dance to music, parents join them and encourage movement.
This is a place where children figure out how to play, create and problem-solve among their peers while their moms and dads discover new ways to become better parents and promote lifelong learning.
“We’re not just bystanders,” said Teresa James, who has two daughters – 4 year-old London and 2-year-old Lake – enrolled in the co-op. “It’s a great environment because we learn and grow with our children.”
South Spokane Co-op is one of 11 in the area that are part of the Community Colleges of Spokane’s Parent Education Cooperative Preschool Program.
Unlike traditional preschool or child care, co-op is an educational setting designed for the whole family. In addition to providing kids with a quality early childhood program, cooperatives also focus on parent education through seminars and hands-on learning.
Under the guidance of a facilitator or teacher, parents help with the planning and implementation of classroom activities. They’re also required to attend meetings and help manage the business affairs of the co-op.
“It’s a way for parents to be part of their child’s education,” said Gail Lampert, the longtime facilitator at South Spokane Co-op. “We work with kids’ interests and parents’ ideas and together, we focus on working and learning through play.”
Co-op is also a place for parents to find support, according to some of the moms. While children interact and play with other kids, mothers and fathers get a chance to spend time with other parents and learn skills that enhance their child’s education and home life.
“It’s like an extended family,” said Stacy Harrington, a South Spokane Co-op member and mother of 3-year-old Daniel and 2-year-old Gianna.
Parent cooperatives have existed in the United States since 1915, when faculty wives at the University of Chicago established a nursery school based on parent participation.
In Washington state, parent cooperative preschools have been associated with the community colleges for the past 70 years. This year, about 300 families have been part of the 11 co-ops in Spokane Valley, the South Hill, Mead, north Spokane, Cheney, Nine Mile Falls, Deer Park and Newport.
It takes at least a dozen families to establish a co-op, said Janet Gunn, manager of the Parent Education Cooperative Preschool Program. While some co-ops remain relatively small, others including Manito and Southside co-ops, have as many as 40 to 50 families.
Each co-op has its own personality and schedule. At the South Spokane Co-op, there’s something happening every day of the week from September through May from 9:15 to 11:15 a.m.
Family days are on Mondays and Wednesdays; preschoolers have sessions on Thursdays and Fridays; and Tuesdays are specifically for children ages 2 and under.
Co-ops also remain one of the most affordable ways for the community to promote early childhood education.
Tuition varies per co-op and is based on the number of days per week and the number of children in the family who are attending. Discounts are sometimes available for siblings. Generally, the cost is about $40 a month for one child attending one day a week.
In addition to the co-op fees, parents enroll in a parent education course through the Community Colleges of Spokane’s Institute for Extended Learning. The cost is about $36 per quarter. Families who aren’t able to pay these fees can apply for scholarships.
For nearly three decades, Lampert has been working with children and parents at the South Spokane Co-op, which is one of three cooperatives based out of Manito United Methodist Church on the South Hill.
Lampert, a former elementary teacher, started out as one of the moms who brought her three children to the preschool. She grew to love the co-op so much that she became the facilitator and has since touched the lives of hundreds of families.
“Gail just loves our kids and wants what’s best for them,” said Jayne McLaughlin of Spokane, whose family is one of about 30 that belong to the South Spokane Co-op.
Besides working with the kids in the classroom, Lampert – like other co-op facilitators in Spokane – also helps manage the parent education part of the program. She stocks the parents’ library with helpful books and other resources and always has ideas for games and family activities that promote creativity and learning.
Once a week, she runs PEPS – Program for Early Parenting Support – specifically for moms of newborns up to 10 months of age. During this time, the mothers bring their babies and discuss topics that include nutrition, attachment and their children’s physical, social, cognitive and emotional development.
During the preschool and family classes, Lampert also occasionally takes a few parents into another room and leads discussions on a variety of topics, from discipline and bedtime routines to healthy foods and traveling with children.
Often, parents use this time to talk about some of the issues they’re struggling with at home – a biting toddler, for instance, or potty training – and learn how other parents have dealt with these problems. Sometimes, the moms choose a parenting book to read and they use this time to share their insights.
Besides acquiring parenting skills, moms and dads also gain experience in bookkeeping, fundraising, public speaking and money management as a result of being part of a nonprofit co-op, said Gunn. By working together and having their kids in the same classroom, some parents also develop lifelong friendships, she said.
“You don’t build the same kind of relationships with other parents like you do here,” said James, who attends the South Spokane Co-op gatherings along with her husband, Kurt.
“We get so much support. This has been a great experience for us.”