Deborah Newman watched her classroom of toddlers at Project Help with a faint smile on her face.
“I never get to see them from here,” she said from an observation booth at the early intervention preschool program on the Middle Tennessee State University campus.
As she gazed through a two-way mirror into her room, the 20-year teaching veteran explained why her students were playing with Play-Doh with more enthusiasm than one would think is possible.
She said the Play-Doh, which was being pulled, tugged, caressed and pounded by the students, increases their muscle strength and introduces them to new textures.
“Some kids are sensitive to different textures,” she said.
Newman explained children with certain developmental delays like autism have problems with the way things feel, and her class plays with Cool Whip, pudding, dried beans and rice, and paint to introduce those kids to a variety of consistencies.
Some of her kids don’t want to roll the Play-Doh between their hands, or even touch it.
“But when they see other kids playing with it, then they want to play with it,” Newman said with a fascinated smile.
Newman’s preschool class is just one of three at Project Help, located on Baird Lane in Murfreesboro, where the children range in age from 15 months old to 3 years old. Her class, referred to as the “Green Room,” houses the youngest students at the preschool program, which offers services free of charge children with developmental delays or disabilities.
Newman’s students range in age from 15 months old to 2 years old, and like all Project Help classrooms, consists of developmentally delayed children and typical children, called peers and peer models, respectively.
The peer models serve as role models to the peers. They benefit as well by being part of a program that promotes diversity, creativity, and cultural experiences for toddlers by learning through play.
Newman explained her class, like all Project Help classes, learns through play and focuses on six areas of childhood development: fine motor skills, gross motor skills, communication, social and adaptive skills, self-help, and cognitive skills. The Play-Doh helps with fine motor skills.
By the time these students graduate from the Green Room to the Blue Room, they should be able to sit through a floor activity – like blocks, reading and other age appropriate activities – replicate three letter sounds, and sit independently on a mat, she said.
While Newman’s class was working on fine motor skills with Play-Doh, students from the Blue Room were working on their gross motor skills with a medicine ball in the hallway.
The Blue Room students, who range in age from 2 years old to two and a half years old, were picking up a five-pound ball and placing it through a small basketball hoop to help build their core strength, Blue Room teacher Bobby Young explained.
Young and the Blue Room students were helped by “Big Friends,” MTSU students who are participating either as part of their studies or for a scholarship requirement.
“This is a school of learning, for the children, MTSU students and community at large,” explained Kerry Boylan, volunteer coordinator at Project Help.
The community at large is invited to learn more about Project Help at a Fall Festival and Blue Raider Spirit Day, set for 1 p.m until 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, in the Project Help Early Intervention Preschool parking lot. Project Help is located at 206 North Baird Lane in Murfreesboro.
Former offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans Brad Hopkins is the guest of honor. He will be joined by other football players from the Titans and MTSU Blue Raiders for pumpkin carving and other activities.
Project Help needs donations of pumpkins, Halloween treats and party favors for the event. To make a donation, contact Project Help at 615-898-2458 before Monday, Oct. 15.
Project Help is funded in part by the Tennessee Department of Education’s Division of Special Education, the United Way of Rutherford and Cannon Counties, MTSU and several local charities, all of which see the value of early intervention in the lives of children with disabilities.
Seeing the value of a preschool education for these children is what brought Newman to Project Help in 1992, she said.
“Before this I worked with adults with disabilities,” she said, adding she jumped at the chance to move her career to Project Help. “I don’t know anything else other than to play with and love children.”
And it’s the little things that keep this challenging job rewarding, she said.
“Just when you think you can’t do another day with Play-Doh," Newman said, "you have a kid who gets it.”