About 6 on a Wednesday night, children began to arrive at the No. 2 classroom of the old Hermosa View Elementary School in Hermosa Beach, each one with a weary adult or two in tow.
Erika Ketz, 3, and her sweat-suited parents, Gerry and Chris, headed confidently for the table where other children were covering themselves and the table top with shaving cream.
Strolling in with her grandparents, 16-month-old Carolyn Coughlan surveyed the room with a scowl, as if finding the many toys not quite up to snuff.
The classroom was geared to a child's world, with its tiny chairs and finger-painted pictures on the walls. But this evening's class was for parents, and children were the subject matter.
Parents Talk With Parents
On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the Parent Education Department of the South Bay Adult School holds its child observation course to provide parents with the opportunity to play with their children in a learning environment, and to talk with other adults about the difficulties of parenting.
Kay Whitehead founded the parent education program 30 years ago. Her goal then is the same as now: to offer classes where "the parent is the student and the child is the material."
The evening course was added two years ago, primarily for working parents who cannot attend daytime classes, said Becky Maynard, coordinator of the Parent Education Department.
Lynn Harris, the instructor for the Wednesday night session, said that typically the parents who attend her class are professionals "and are feeling a little guilty for not spending more time with their kids."
Sherri Sussman, a producer of children's home videos who recently moved to the South Bay, said she heard about the course at a picnic and decided to bring her 18-month-old son, Shanan, to the Wednesday session.
"I wanted to find out about something like this," Sussman said. "Not only do you want your child out, but you want to be able to share with him in those activities. It's important."
Maynard said that parents who come to the classes are usually first-time parents who want to talk about children's needs and how they can better work with their own child.
"Our goal is to get parents comfortable in their role, give them a chance to observe their child in a group and talk about what they've seen," she said.
The class is structured so that half of the parents' time is spent playing with their children--using clay, finger paints and educational toys--and the other half talking about a child's social and emotional development.
Harris, who has two young children and a master's degree in early childhood education, said that at the beginning of the course, the parents selected topics that they wanted to cover, ranging from sleeping to toilet training to handling a new baby in the house.
"We're really using the parents for resources," Harris said. "They come here with their own agenda, things they want or need to talk about, and then we try to zero in on those things."
Whitehead, who takes her 2-year-old granddaughter to one of the classes in the program, said: "It's a self-perpetuating kind of thing. Each of the parents has something to share. Many parents say it's their therapy for the week."
Several parents said that the time their children spend playing with others of the same age is the most important part of the class.
The parent education classes are organized by children's ages to deal with problems associated with different age groups. The Tuesday evening classes were supposed to be for parents and their 1- to 3-year-olds, with Wednesday's for 3- to 5-year-olds. But because enrollment was not as large as expected this quarter, Harris said, parents who come to Wednesday night classes bring 1- to 5-year-olds.
By comparing children of the same age, Whitehead added, parents can more easily identify things such as learning disabilities and emotional difficulties that might not have been noticed otherwise.
"Being in a class with other parents and children at the same stage gives them the opportunity to see what the normal pace of development is, where their child should be and their expectations for their age," she said.
Other benefits stem from the give and take among the parents as they watch and talk about their youngsters.
As daughter Erika played with mounds of yellow Play Doh, Chris Ketz, owner of a Hermosa Beach consulting firm, said: "It really helps to find out your child is doing OK. It makes you feel better as a parent."
She added that when Erika was younger, the two of them attended the school's infant observation class. "I learned everything I knew about mothering from that course," she said.
Carolyn's grandfather, Roger Robinson of Agoura Hills, said he came to the class because he and his wife, Lorraine, had been asked by their daughter, Kathy, to take her place that week. While he watched the 16-month-old share her crayons with other children, he said: "It's good to start them young. Carolyn's a little spoiled right now. . . . She thinks everything is hers, but she is gradually learning to share."
Thirty years ago, when she started the first child observation course at the adult school, Whitehead noted that it was important for children of small families to share time with one another. She believes that interaction "makes a big difference" in terms of their development.
Besides teaching parents, Whitehead said, the program provides information on hearing and vision screenings for children and periodically brings in an educational psychologist to look at the development of pre-kindergarteners and evaluate their readiness to start school.
Parents pay a $22 enrollment fee for the 13-week course, while most of the costs in the Parent Education Department are funded by the state as part of the adult school.