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Primary Project Uses "Play" to Inspire Success


ESM is in its third year of a program called Primary Project where grade K-3 students "play" to become more comfortable in the school setting including both the learning environment and the social environment.

Through playtime, and with appropriate toys, children can work through their personal challenges. Maybe a boy lacks confidence to raise his hand in class. Perhaps a girl doesn’t contribute during group activities because she is anxious around other children.

Through Primary Project, students receive help building confidence and self-esteem, practicing socialization skills, learning behavior control and how to focus on tasks.

"A child may hold their own in the classroom, but with some encouragement, they can often shine both socially and academically," said Janel Callahan, ESM School Counselor.


The program serves 120 students each year between East Syracuse Elementary and Woodland Elementary. The District received a three-year grant to implement the K-3 program. By the end of this school year, ESM’s Primary Project is expected to become nationally certified.

The non-profit Contact Community Services, Inc. partners with ESM to provide Primary Project services. Time-tested, Primary Project started in 1957 by the Children’s Institute in Rochester, which established the national program in New York State.

Children are recommended for Primary Project by their teacher using classroom data. Each child visits a trained adult called a "Child Associate" once a week for 30 minutes. Parent permission is necessary and sessions continue for 12-15 weeks. The child-centered play is 1:1, meaning the associate sees only one child at a time. Contact staff Karen Cesarini and Bonnie Bayly are the two child associates trained by Children’s Institute who are serving ESM.

Children literally "play" in a room filled with expressive toys. There are no electronic gadgets and the toys are selected so children have to use their imagination to play. Associates do not participate or help unless asked by the child to do so. The toys are chosen to help children express themselves and include, for example, dress-up clothes and accessories, nurturing toys like dolls and medical kits and tactile toys with various textures that feel different to the touch.

"The toys help children put language to their feelings such as anger, worry or frustration and help children express themselves," said Ms. Callahan.

"Teachers fill out a survey before and after Primary Project for each student and we see growth in all areas, so we know the program works. Students are more focused, they come out of their shell and start interacting with other children," Ms. Callahan explained. Attendance also improves.

"The program is a form of early intervention. Some children need more time and a little help to adjust. This program can head off a stronger need for intervention services in later years," Ms. Callahan said. If a child does not progress in the program, it may be an indicator the child needs further help now.

"Play is the language of children. The play translates to the classroom as students build confidence to ask for help or learn to persevere and work through a problem. The power of intervening early can help set children up for success in future years," explained Shelly Chizzonite, ESM School Counselor.


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