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PLAYground reimagines distance learning for deaf and hearing impaired kids

A group from the University of St. Thomas is transforming summer camp and making it more accessible for students.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Ask any parent of kids in school and you'll likely hear them say that distance learning can be a challenge.

But imagine having a language barrier or being hearing impaired.

There's a group from the University of St. Thomas transforming summer camp for these special students. They work with the PLAYground, an 8-week virtual camp for kids in Kindergarten through 8th grade.

"This is a summer program, one that's recreational it's so that we have learning opportunities and things to do at home," said Kalie Fenton, a 13-year-old student and PLAYground camper.

Kalie is deaf and spoke to us through an interpreter. Instead of going away to summer camp, COVID-19 is limiting her adventures to home. But that doesn't mean she's not exploring.

"We do create opportunities for students to still go outside, interact with nature, through things like nature bingo or doing rock painting and leaving positive messages around their community," said Sara Thibault, one of the college students making learning more engaging for kids like Kalie.

Each week, Sara and the staff at the PLAYground hand-deliver about 100 boxes of materials to students who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or speak English as a second language.

The box contains everything needed to complete a themed project that promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Kalie explained how excited she was to start her experiments.

"We were working with what we call squish circuits so we had to put Play-Doh together and do some wiring in order to get the lights to light up," Kalie recalled.

All of the PLAYground's lessons are available in English, American Sign Language, Spanish, Arabic, and soon Somali.

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, the founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, explained the mission. "A big part of the playful learning lab's work with the PLAYground has been to address some of the inequity that we see in education and making sure that access works for everyone and anywhere," she said. "So for us it's a calling. The University of St. Thomas talks about all for the common good. And for me, that's what this project is all about. We have over 30 students from 12 different majors who are all bringing their own expertise to this project."

For Kalie, even though she misses her friends, she's grateful for this opportunity. "This is serving its purpose and it's better than nothing," she explained.

The organizers of the PLAYground know some of the families don't have internet access. They've teamed up with community partners to give out physical copies of the PLAYbook, which is an activity book that goes along with the PLAYground activities.

To learn more about the PLAYground visit https://www.playgroundcamp.org/ 

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