The power of play

Lethbridge-based Building Brains Together received a ChooseWell Healthy Community Grant to bring play programs and nutritious snacks to low-income families across the city last summer. The initiative was designed around healthy child development principles and games that support children’s physical, social, mental and emotional skills. And, the project ensured kids and their families got connected to a larger network of local support. “We’ve now been able to build longer term relationships with families at the sites. It’s exciting that other agencies are now really eager to keep coming and connecting with these families too,” says Vicki Hazelwood, coordinator of Building Brains Together.

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

“They’re here!”

The enthusiastic shout rings out from young voices. They’ve spotted a group of high school and university students in vivid yellow t-shirts walking towards their housing units. The kids run down the sidewalk, knocking on neighbours’ doors to spread the news.

The boisterous group gathers in a grassy courtyard in the middle of the housing complex, gearing up for a summer evening of musical freeze tag and red-light green light, followed by a snack of cheese strings and orange slices.

The yellow-tee wearing staff running the event are from Building Brains Together (BBT), an initiative based out of the University of Lethbridge’s neuroscience department. BBT aims to empower adults to improve brain development and executive functions in children. 

This past summer, BBT received a $4,675 Communities ChooseWell Healthy Community Grant to run a free weekly play program for children and families at three Lethbridge Housing Authority sites across the city. The sites provide safe, affordable housing for low-income individuals and families, including single-parents and newcomers to Canada. 

“Active outdoor play and healthy eating are really foundational to strong brain development,” says Vicki Hazelwood, BBT’s coordinator. “ChooseWell came alongside us and gave us permission to be creative and see how we could help kids and families thrive.”

For families at the housing units, transportation, finances and language barriers often make it difficult to access local programs for their kids. The play initiative brought engaging activities and nutritious snacks right to their home, with the evenings designed around executive function curriculum games to build the childrens’ physical, social, mental and emotional skills. And, beyond the weekly facilitated play, BBT partnered with local thrift stores to stock bins at each site with jump ropes, hula hoops, balls and other toys for kids to use throughout the week.

“Through play, cognitive development can be enhanced and even repaired…It lights up areas of the brain that help with decision-making, processing and reason,” says Vicki. “It also decreases kids’ stress levels. They’re better able to regulate their emotions around their peers and build stronger relationships and connections.”

BBT also connected with parents, using the ChooseWell grant to fund kick-off and wrap-up barbecues at each housing site for all interested families. At the kick-off event, BBT asked parents what kind of programs they would like to see.

“We had a lot of feedback from parents — just how much they appreciated that someone was thinking of their kids’ needs and meeting them where they’re at,” says Vicki.

For each wrap-up barbecue, BBT invited library staff, school mental health teams, Lethbridge Family Centre and other local agencies to chat with the families. “We’re there in the summer, but their needs are all year-round. We wanted to make sure these families were connected to community programs and services,” says Vicki.

Through these events, local organizations also became more aware of how to meet the needs in their community, she adds. Since last summer, BBT has used remaining funds to run a couple of fall play evenings and host an outdoor holiday party in December, where local services again joined the festivities.

“We’ve now been able to build longer term relationships with families at these sites. It’s exciting that other community agencies are really eager to keep coming and connecting with these families too.”