United Way, Thrive in 5 and WGBH team up to blend animation with exploration and give East Boston families a memorable early learning experience.

There was no other way to describe it: the kid was a typhoon, a nuclear-powered toddler that couldn’t sit still for five consecutive seconds and produced a trail of dirt and debris in his jet-stream. Alexis Agrinsoni steeled himself. It was going to be an interesting 90 minutes.

It was 10:00 a.m. on February 12, 2014 and Alexis, an intern for Thrive in 5, the early learning collaborative between the City of Boston and United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, was at the East Boston Social Center. The first in a six-week series of unique playgroups was about to begin. Typically, these playgroups, modeled after the Boston Public School’s Countdown to Kindergarten initiative, bring together neighborhood families for a few hours of play, activities, and parent to parent conversation.

But this time, things were going to be different. Because, today, the kids were going to get to watch TV.

The show was Peep and the Big World World, the PBS cartoon starring Joan Cusack and produced locally by WGBH in Boston. In fact, it was WGBH that had first reached out to Thrive in 5, with the idea of incorporating Peep into a family learning curriculum, which they translated and wanted to try out with Spanish-speaking families.

“The idea behind it is simple,” says Katie Britton Director of Resource Development and Communications for Thrive in 5. “A child watching a show for 20 minutes is not the end. Families can continue the learning and go out and do some of the things featured in the show together.”

Peep is a mixture of animation and live action segments, featuring children engaging in projects and learning activities. The focus for the six-week series was science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and, most importantly, “exploration.” The Peep episodes encourage basic critical thinking among children, allowing them to experiment, make mistakes and learn on their own.

Parents would then be able to take these activities and principles back with them, and continue the learning experience at home–one of the key strategies Thrive in 5 and United Way are fostering in the community to ensure that more children enter kindergarten ready to succeed.‚Äč

“This is great for parents,” says Britton. “Here, they can be in a place with play group leader telling them it’s okay for their kids to explore, make a mess and find their own way. It helps parents relax when paint is flying.”

The children and their parents weren’t the only ones doing the learning. At that first group, Alexis Agrinsoni had found himself in an alien environment. His social work specialty was with youth, so when his Boston University program assigned him to work with young children, he was unsure at first how to tread.

“I didn’t have any experience with kids this age,” he says. “But it ended up being a good experience. It was interesting to see the families interacting with their kids and learning new ways to let your child explore.”

Not that the occasional stressor was completely absent. That little boy–also named Alexis–provided a challenge right away. More interested in scooping potting soil out by the fistful rather than plant the flowers like they did on Peep, “Little Alexis” (as he came to be known) personified the type of child that would be so easy to park in front of a TV and let be. But as the weeks went on, Little Alexis began to personify something else: a total success story. He paid attention, followed directions, took part in the activities and developed a genuine interest in the activities.

“Seeing that light bulb go on was the most exciting part. I was able to see the learning actually happen in front of me,” says Alexis, whose final task before his internship ends will be to develop a toolkit for other playgroups to use to promote STEM learning and activities.

This series wrapped up on March 24. That day, Little Alexis, upon walking through the doors of East Boston Social Center, made a beeline for his absolute favorite person in the group and jumped in his lap. His pal, Big Alexis, laughed and the two turned their attention to the TV.

The show was about to start.