More than fun and games: Toddler playgroup helps families in low-income areas access vital health services

A weekly playgroup for toddlers in Winnipeg is doing more than giving kids a chance to play together — it’s also helping families in low-income Winnipeg neighbourhoods access services like medical appointments, nutritional advice and child-development assessments.

The Bright Start program began in 2014, and was developed by NorWest Co-Op Community Health — a community-based organization that helps people connect with health-care services — in partnership with the Inkster Parent Child Coalition.

Brenna King, community development programmer for NorWest Co-Op Community Health, says access to health care for this age group is critical.

“The first five years of life are the basis for brain development. Programs like this that support families is one of the biggest factors in health and equity,” she said.

The program also reduces barriers to health care for families with varied incomes and education levels. Many of the families who participate in the program are newcomers, and struggle to find transportation to medical appointments, access to grocery stores with healthy foods and help with accessing care for their young children.

Bright Start tackles those challenges by bringing health experts right to the playgroup.

The first two locations for the program are in the Keewatin and Inkster neighbourhoods. A third location has just opened in the North End’s Gilbert Park.

At a recent session at the Inkster location, families were joined by public health nurses, a nurse practitioner, a child-development counsellor, a registered dietitian and a resource co-ordinator from the neighbouring resource centre.

While kids rode scooters and played with blocks, and a group of pregnant women sat in a circle on the floor, health professionals were available to answer questions and offer services ranging from updating immunizations to giving assessments to see if kids are reaching key developmental milestones.

In a private room, nurse practitioner Miriam Amaladas gave Bahrlin Dirie, who is pregnant with her seventh child, some prenatal advice about why she’s craving uncooked rice.

“Pregnant women do get cravings sometimes. It’s called ‘pica.’ Sometimes they want to eat dirt or chalk, sometimes they want to eat weird things because that’s something missing from their body.”

A nutritious hot breakfast is served at each playgroup meeting, but registered dietitian Tammy Nasuti says she wishes she could do more to help families that often struggle with food security.

“It’s hard. I wish I could do more. We provide meal bags for food security but what’s most helpful is giving them the skills and the education so they can take it back home to do it.”

A chance for kids — and parents — to make friends

For many newcomer families, the opportunity the group provides for kids to socialize also gives parents the chance to practise communication skills and make new friends in the community.

Esperanza Bielang brings her four-year-old daughter, Erianne, each week.

“The group helps us on communication skills and we were surprised there’s lots of Filipinos here. We can develop friendships and connections.”

Since the program began in 2014, close to 200 children have accessed the playgroup and about the same number of families have benefited from the service providers on site.

Though Bright Start gives access to a range of health care services, at its core, the group provides kids a chance to enjoy the simple pleasure of playing with friends.

Kevin Swampy brings his two-year old son Lucas every week.

“It’s a good place to be. I get to see my son be happy here and he loves to be here. I get to see him play with the other kids and the toys. Seeing him happy makes me happy.”

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