Parents and children gather for toddler playtime twice a week. [Audrey Graham]

“The first three years of life are so important to a child,” said Audrey Graham, “but those years are so hard if a parent is depressed or lonely.”

That’s why the City of Moab’s twice-weekly “toddler playtime” is as much for adult caregivers and parents as it is for kids. Graham said the event provides a space for children to play with other kids and for their adult caregivers to socialize and learn from one another.

Winter in Moab can feel isolating and lonely for parents, so in 2009, Graham asked the City of Moab for a space where toddlers could play together. The Center Street Gym became the location for toddler playtime, which runs from 10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

At the beginning of toddler playtime, volunteers set out a variety of toys: a soft blue mat for younger kids and babies, a few balls, a small basketball hoop. Graham is careful not to set out too many toys, she said—she wants to encourage children to share and to play with each other. Parents sit on the floor with their children to play and interact.

There are a few rules: caregivers must always remain with their children; caregivers should avoid cell phone use, and caregivers should help with the clean-up and “goodbye” routine at the end of toddler playtime.

An hour and fifteen minutes is the perfect amount of time, Graham has found—any longer and children can become too tired, any shorter and children won’t want to leave. At the end of the hour and fifteen minutes, children and their parents go through the goodbye routine, where they sit with a parachute and say goodbye to each other and to the gym. The routine helps kids know what to expect, Graham said, and minimizes temper tantrums.

This year’s toddler playtime is especially important following the impact that COVID-19 had on socializing last year.

“We in the child development areas are really seeing that these are COVID babies,” Graham said. She’s found that children are behind in their socialization skills, which could lead to developmental issues.

Graham also serves as a specialist for South East Early Intervention, part of Utah State University’s Persons with Disabilities Program, where she works with families with infants and children under three with developmental delays. Toddler playtime gives Graham a chance to notice any speech or behavior issues, which she can then follow up on with parents. Early Intervention does at-home visits for children who have significant health problems, behavioral issues, physical disabilities, vision or hearing impairments, speech delays and learning delays. Specialists like Graham will evaluate the child and develop a service plan for them.

“We have to be sure we’re not missing children,” she said. When a child is behind, it can be hard to catch them up both developmentally and emotionally, which could make a parent’s job of raising their child even harder.

While COVID-19 impacted the ability of children to socialize with one another, the pandemic has also encouraged people to talk more about their mental health, which Graham has found is a good thing for parents.

“Parents need support. So many parents don’t realize the job they’re getting into,” Graham said. Especially when parents have to work multiple jobs and are tired and stressed out themselves, just spending an hour and fifteen minutes twice a week to be with other parents and to be with their children can help everyone involved.

Graham’s long-term goal is to have a similar free event for young parents and young children every morning of the week.

“The positive support we give to parents, so they can positively support their kids, can have a huge impact later in a child’s life,” Graham said. “We just know that brains are being formed right now.”

Toddler Playtime runs from 10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at the Center Street Gym.