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Fun and games teach youngsters in Playschool

Crouching on the floor, Alexis Iovino whispered encouragement to 4-year-old Breana Nash. With a mischievous grin on her face, Breana grasped a long pointer and began tapping the large numbers on the calendar.

Together, the teen and toddler led a small group of preschoolers in counting the days of November until they reached the date -- Nov. 30. Breana beamed with pride as she began to dress the "weather bear" -- a cutout bear with Velcro clothing ranging from a sweater for cold days to galoshes for rainy days.

"This is such a good group of kids," said Iovino, 17, of Murrysville, a senior at Franklin Regional. "We have so much fun, and they're so carefree."

Iovino is one of about 80 Franklin Regional high school students enrolled in the district's child development classes -- two hands-on classes that teach students what it's like to be a teacher or parent. The teens lead a 90 minute preschool class four days each week, designing lessons, activities, snacks and playtime for a group of about 20 toddlers.

During the fall, students in "Child Development 2" teach a 10-week playschool session while students in the entry-level course focus on the theory behind working with toddlers, said Sheila Connolly, the family/consumer science teacher who heads up the program. The entry-level group then leads an extended spring session, while students from the advanced course work with elementary teachers. The teens are split into two groups and teach the class in alternating weeks. Connolly said she prefers students have one week to plan age-appropriate lessons for the toddlers.

"A lot of times, my students tell me, 'wow, this is a lot of work for one activity,' " Connolly said. "It may be a lot of work, but the reward is great."

Experts say that hard work pays off for the toddlers when the teens are well-versed in child development principles. A strong understanding of what is appropriate for the toddlers is important in preschool-in-high school settings, said Julia Williams, director of the early childhood program at Duquesne University.

"Most of the time, high school students think it would be a fun thing to do, but it's important that we provide the right type of curriculum for the toddlers," Williams said. "These classes can help high school students be aware of child development."

Students often come to Connolly with questions about what is "normal" for toddlers. She teaches the teens what social and physical milestones to expect the toddlers to reach.

Connolly also requires her students to watch cartoons on a regular basis so they know what the toddlers are interested in. Another assignment has the teens checking out the toy aisles at local stores.

"My students are here to learn from the children," she said. "They need to know what these kids are interested in."

Connolly's students typically enroll for one of three reasons. About one-third are interested in becoming a teacher, while others aspire to become a pediatrician or social worker. The others plan on becoming parents one day, she said.

Iovino initially enrolled in the course last year because she wanted to be an elementary teacher. She's since changed her mind and plans to study business next year. Still, she doesn't regret taking the courses.

"It was a good experience, and I know it will help me be a better parent one day," Iovino said. "You have so much fun with these little guys."

And the kids have fun, too. That's what has kept Allison DiFilippo of Murrysville sending her son back for the past three years. She initially enrolled Alex, now 5, in the program while she was pregnant with her third child. She quickly was impressed when her toddler came home able to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" and was bringing home books he picked out from the school library.

Now, Alex attends playschool only on Fridays, but he still loves the program.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to get some extra special attention," DiFilippo said. "But now, he begs to go every day. They get a lot of one-on-one attention. He just loves it."

Hannah Stynchula hopes the program will help her become a special education teacher. In her second year of the class, the 18-year-old senior wants to work with young children in her career.

"I love kids and I like being able to create something for them to do," she said. "I think everyone deserves a chance in life."

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