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East County Wednesday, Apr. 22, 2020 2 months ago

Time to play the virtual game in Lakewood Ranch

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Gullett Elementary kindergarteners connect through virtual playdates.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Evan Bates, a kindergartner at B.D. Gullett Elementary School, sat in front of his computer with a giant stuffed tooth in his hands during his class’s stuffed animal party April 3.

He waited patiently to tell his classmates why he presented a stuffed tooth.

“It was special because I lost my first tooth,” he said.

The stuffed animal party was the planned activity for the kindergartner’s second virtual play date, which his teacher, Brandy Bellittera, started as a way for the students to connect.

Students in Bellittera’s class gather on Zoom to talk about their week and to participate in activities. The play dates are voluntary for students and are meant to be a fun addition to the students’ assignments for the week. On average, 15 of her 21 students participate in the play date each week.

“It’s just a chance to get together and to keep reassuring the kids: ‘It’s OK. I’m still here for you,” Bellittera said. “It’s the highlight of my week. … Always as soon as I schedule each week’s play date, it’s always the biggest thing I circle on my calendar because I can’t wait to get with them and see how it’s going, what are they up to and just seeing they’re still happy.”

Bates said he likes to participate because he gets to see his friends.

“[Evan Bates] was so excited to see all of his friends, and I was so glad that she delved into trying that technology out for us,” said Jennifer Bates, Evan’s mother. “Evan was just glued to the computer screen with a smile on his face the whole time. He even raised his hand when he wanted to say something.”

Melissa Saporoso said her son, Luca, who is a student in Bellittera’s class, looks forward to every play date.

“As soon as I turn it on, and he sees his classmates, he gets all excited and starts naming their names,” Saporoso said. “It’s so nice to see since he’s not getting any interaction with any other kids during all of this. We’re so serious all the time doing homework and parents having to teach now, so [the play dates] are a little fun time with his friends.”

Bellittera started the play dates the first week of e-learning, which began March 30.

“The very first one was a get-together, and I let it happen naturally,” Bellittera said. “There wasn’t any guidance. It was just everybody popping on and saying hello because it had been two full weeks since we’ve seen each other.”

Other play dates have included a read-aloud of the book “Pete the Kitty and the Groovy Play date,” a dance party and a scavenger hunt.

Bellittera had a hard time holding back tears when she saw her class gather for the first play date because she hadn’t seen them since before spring break and because moving to online learning had been stressful. Spring break started March 16.

“Just getting to see their little faces and how excited they were was incredible,” she said.

Seeing how much her son has enjoyed the virtual play dates inspired Jennifer Bates to start play dates for her class. She is a kindergarten teacher at Gullett as well.

“It’s so important for [students] to get to ‘play with each other,’” she said. “They got robbed of their last quarter. They don’t understand 100% what’s going on. They just know one day they were [at school], and now we can’t go back. It’s important for them to stay connected and see each other because they developed these deep friendships, and they were a classroom family.”

Bates had her first play date April 10 and had her class do a directed drawing of a bunny.

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