For many students across North Texas, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their lives more than any other single event. For the last two years, they’ve dealt with stress and uncertainty, learning disruptions, social isolation and more. And it’s no surprise that children may struggle as our community works to return to “normalcy.”
At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, we recognize the challenges kids are up against today. Now more than ever, we need our students to feel engaged with and inspired by school, so they can graduate prepared for success in college or in their career. We have identified education, income and health as the building blocks of opportunity, and it’s incredibly difficult to thrive in the latter two areas without a firm foundation in the first.
That’s why last summer we helped launch Heal Play Learn, an innovative program that provides both entertainment and educational opportunities to students in southern Dallas County. The goal is to encourage kids to re-engage with learning through exciting, hands-on group activities.
Learning Loss and Disengagement
The stress and disruption of the last few years have had a very real impact on local students. At the height of the pandemic, the Texas Education Agency found that children had experienced significant learning loss in reading, math and science, with up to 36% fewer students achieving grade-level proficiency in each subject.
Meanwhile, kids have struggled with the social and emotional challenges, as well as the fear and uncertainty, of the pandemic. Many local students lost family members to COVID-19. It’s no wonder local educators say their students are disengaged, frustrated and listless.
It will take years for our students to fully recover from the learning loss and the social-emotional toll of the pandemic. That’s especially true for the Black and Latinx populations, which were among the hardest hit communities in North Texas.
Getting Kids Excited About Learning
With these challenges in mind, last summer United Way of Metropolitan Dallas partnered with Texas Instruments Foundation, Educate Texas and CoSpero Consulting to launch Heal Play Learn. The program focuses on the whole child and is designed to encourage students’ social and emotional wellness, physical activity and engagement with the arts and science.
As Susan Hoff, chief strategy and impact officer at United Way of Metroplitan Dallas, explains, “We focus on STEAM—which is science, technology, engineering, arts and math programming—coupled with social-emotional learning and physical activity. It’s a whole-child approach to help kids get energized, excited and reconnected to school.”
With Heal Play Learn, students in Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Lancaster school districts get to enjoy incredible, world-class programming from local organizations. Each day, it’s something a little different, and the students get to cook, do science experiments, learn about dance and music, and just have fun.
Hoff says this type of experiential learning is a great way for kids to engage with learning.
“This has been a very disruptive time, especially for children,” she says. “And our brains only do so much when we’re stressed. Getting connected again, giving kids a safe space to feel their feelings, as well as to move and experiment, really drives academic outcomes. That’s the whole focus of Heal Play Learn. And we know the results will be better outcomes when they come back in the fall.”
Our Collective Impact
Last summer, during its first year of programming, Heal Play Learn reached a total of 15,176 students from Cedar Hill and DeSoto ISD, delivering 36 hours of engaging programming. This summer, the program has expanded to also include Lancaster ISD, enabling it to reach even more students.
Heal Play Learn is just one of the ways in which United Way and our supporters are working to improve access to quality education for everyone in North Texas. Programs like Heal Play Learn have a ripple effect—not only on the lives of the individual students, but also on our community as a whole.
“United Way is laser focused on building a community where everyone has the opportunity and access to thrive,” Hoff explains. “We do that by focusing on education, financial stability and health. Heal Play Learn sits right in the center of those areas. Kids who are healthy, who have the opportunity to learn and connect with their community, are going to grow up to be those citizens of the future who have strong careers and jobs and can support themselves and their families well into the future. It’s a great investment for every one of those kids, but also for all of us.”
You Can Support Local Students Affected by COVID-19
As local students work to reengage with school, initiatives like Heal Play Learn can make a huge difference in their attitudes toward school, their connections to other students, and even their social and emotional health. Thanks to dedicated supporters like you, we can all work to ensure more students have access to impactful programming like this.