Four students in a gym holding volleyballs

Creating a safe place to play and learn

March 20, 2024

Child and Youth Care students participate in community program

Danielle Alyward is a big fan of learning through play.

The fourth-year Child and Youth Care (CYC) student is a regular volunteer at Friday Night Lights, a free program for youth and their caregivers that operates out of Georgia Avenue Elementary School. A partnership between the City of Nanaimo’s Parks, Recreation and Culture department, School District 68 and Vancouver Island University, the program provides a space for local children and their caregivers to play sports, do crafts and socialize together.

Danielle and other Child and Youth Care students are tasked with leading the children through different activities. As a fourth-year student, Danielle is also mentoring other CYC students as they gain experiences working with children and families.

“I love just getting in there and playing as hard as I can and building a relationship if possible,” she says. “In my experience, learning doesn’t happen unless there’s a relationship.”

When I show up to witness the program in action, Danielle is leading her own team of kids in a fast-paced floor hockey game. When a conflict between two players starts to heat up, she expertly redirects the players by modelling how to share the ball and how much fun it is to work as a team.

“When you’re playing with toys and acting out social skills, you can watch the light bulb come on for kids; it doesn’t have to be so serious all the time, but you still get that mind-blown moment,” she explains. “I like to find ways to learn and have fun at the same time.”

The CYC program started Friday Night Lights in response to community need and in collaboration with local child, youth and family serving organizations.

“We identified the need for free, accessible social programs for kids and families in the University District area,” says Teri Derksen, CYC faculty member. “After a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday Night Lights re-started, this time with the current partnership between the city, the school district and our program. It’s such a win-win. Students are getting experience working with children and the community has a free, accessible program. This partnership is really what is making it sustainable.”

Panago Pizza also donates free pizza for participating families. Kids can move from playing sports and games in the gym, to doing crafts in the multipurpose room. The program is for elementary school-aged children and their caregivers, who participate in the activities alongside their child. Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture provides staff for the program. Michelle Swecera, a School District 68 Community Schools Coordinator, is there to provide any extra resources to families who want them.

“Friday Night Lights has evolved into a broader partnership offering out-of-school time programming for School District 68 students with three large organizations in their community,” said Michelle. “This valuable partnership offers our students a safe space to participate in activities with their families and build healthy connections with professionals in their community.”

Lisa McCrea says the program has been a good outlet for her son, Ethan. The two of them are regulars on Friday nights. Ethan goes to Georgia Avenue so the environment is familiar and he is comfortable there.

“It’s always a different mix of kids, so he’s interacting with kids he normally wouldn’t interact with,” she says. “He’s obsessed with sports so he loves being able to come and play. On a Friday night after a work week, it’s a nice release. I like to get in there and be active with him.”

Danielle says the experience she gets at Friday Night Lights will help her in finding work and ultimately pursuing her passion. She’s interested in running an activity-based counselling practice and plans to pursue a master’s degree in counselling after working for a few years.

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