Brownsville parents transform local supermarkets into kid learning zones

February 11, 2020 Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY
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THE CITYA group of Brownsville parents was frustrated by a lack of local places to take young children.

Where, outside of school or day care, they asked, could their kids get some brain development stimulation, boost communication skills and have some fun?

With no obvious options, the parents created a program of their own.

Now “Learning Landscapes” is transforming two neighborhood supermarkets into scavenger hunt zones for little ones to explore as they shop with the adults in their lives.

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During the program’s debut last week at the Food Bazaar on Junius Street, a half dozen youngsters picked up cards, illustrated with smiling cartoon animals, and went on the hunt. Kids now can do the same at Cherry Valley on Mother Gaston Boulevard.

They scoured aisles looking for signs that matched the pictures — like a pink bunny that leads to a sign on the glass of the frozen produce case asking, in Spanish and English, “What healthy foods do you see?”

Meet Blake the Bumblebee

Learning Landscape signs at the Brownsville Food Bazaar come in English and Spanish. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Chrystie Cloud, who is 5 1/2, and her sister Cailynn, 3, searched the supermarket for one of the characters, a cat. Accompanied by their mom, María Solórzano, they asked store workers for clues.

Chrystie cleverly — though incorrectly — guessed they might find the cat in the cat food aisle.

“Kitty cat! Where are you?” Cailynn called out.

As she shopped, Solórzano asked them questions from English- and Spanish-language signs throughout the store, like “How many bananas do you think are in this bin?” and “What do you see that’s the color orange?”

Featured on some signs is Blake the Brownsville Bumblebee, who’s named after nearby Blake Avenue and serves as the Learning Landscapes mascot. He and the other characters were designed by Made In Brownsville, a local creative agency.

“He’s smiling cause he’s happy to live in Brownsville, he’s got his ’fro, he’s ours,” said neighborhood mom Bashirah Okeh, who helped develop the program.

Colors, Weights and Measures

Okeh serves on the family advisory board of the local early childhood organizing group United for Brownsville, convening once a month with other caregivers to provide insight into early childhood development issues, from child care to early intervention.

About two years ago, moms, dads, grandparents and other members on the board were brainstorming about how to create more learning opportunities for young kids.

“We all sat down, we were thinking like, there’s not enough activity, not enough tools for the children to learn, maybe we could create signs and put them on bus stops, put them on laundromats,” said Evelyn Velazquez, a mother of four.

They eventually settled on supermarkets.

“The parents can come in and make it part of their process, like, ‘Let’s take a trip to the supermarket and turn it into a game,’” said Okeh. “It’s an outing for the kid too, and be like ‘Hey, I did something fun with Mommy today.’”

After the advisory committee members rated markets in the neighborhood for qualities such as friendliness, accessibility, fresh produce and low pricing, United for Brownsville Co-Director Kassa Belay pitched the idea to the two markets — and got two yeses.

Cailynn, 3, jumps on a sign in the Learning Landscapes scavenger hunt at Food Bazaar in Brownsville, Jan. 30, 2020. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

“It’s a way to bring public spaces into learning experiences, not just in school,” said Belay.

Parents, he added, “wanted to find a place in the community where they could have organic types of learning.” Belay said he hopes to expand Learning Landscapes throughout Brooklyn.

The grocers have quickly adjusted to their double role.

“I was an elementary school teacher for years, and I know the importance of getting children excited, getting them enthusiastic about learning,” said Suzanne Kuczun, a Food Bazaar representative. “And what better place than a place filled with numbers and colors, and weights and measures?”

Okeh said the parents had accomplished “something that has not been done before.”

“Usually, people in marginalized communities are being acted upon and convened upon from people from outside who think they know what’s best for us and our community,” she said. “But we are setting the priorities for what we want in our community and what we feel is best for our children, and we are changing the narrative of Brownsville.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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