Enrichment, community at heart of Ocean State Kidz Club's mission

The Cranston Herald ·

The site remains a landmark in the truest Rhode Island sense, known to many residents and passers-by as the old Blockbuster Video.

But inside the building at 350 Park Ave. in Cranston, a vibrant new world has emerged – one focused on fostering a sense of community and providing students in grades six through eight with opportunities for enrichment.

“We’re not a daycare. We’re an after school enrichment program…where youth can grow,” said Laura Liddle, co-owner and director of the new Ocean State Kidz Club after school club and summer camp youth program.

The mission statement for Ocean State Kidz Club, which serves students in grades six through eight year-round, is to “provide opportunity for each youth to explore and develop new skills through different activities, gain responsibility and self-confidence, and strengthen individual physical development.”

“Working parents are assured with a safe, stimulating environment for their children…We encourage imaginative and creative attitudes, and foster [students’] self-esteem by giving them a sense of community,” a description of the facility’s goals reads.

For Liddle – a longtime childcare professional who also provides gluten-free health coaching services – that mission is deeply engrained.

Her family founded Liddle Tots, Liddle Tots II Teen and Ocean State Kidz in Warwick in the 1990s, serving children from infants to sixth-graders. She became director of Liddle Tots II Teen in 2009, and decided to form Ocean State Kidz Club with her husband, co-owner and general manager Matt Schoeninger, after seeing a need for programming specifically serving students in grades six through eight.

“I just was born into this whole field,” she said.

Liddle said the concept for the Park Avenue location – situated next door to Park View Middle School, and a sister program of the K-5 Liddle Tots II Teen program in Warwick – arose when her husband drove by the site while working as a van driver for another school-age program.

“When I walked into this building, I just knew this could be a great place for middle school students,” she said.

Many of the program’s children attend Park View, although Liddle said there are students “coming from all over.” On a typical day, she said, the program’s staff will meet students at Park View and head over to the club’s building, while other students are dropped off. She said there are early and late walk-overs from Park View to accommodate after school activities and tutoring at the school.

Visitors to Ocean State Kidz Club will find a bright, open, colorful environment divided into multiple areas.

There is an arcade space with a WiiU video game system and activities such as hoop shoot, air hockey, chess and foosball. A homework area is equipped with new Chromebooks, while a kitchen area accommodates cooking – mostly gluten free – and snack time, as well as activities such a recent donut decorating program with the manager of the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.

Another portion of the space is used for arts and crafts activities, such as a sewing club. Along one wall, the floor is painted to resemble a shore-side boardwalk, leading to the restrooms. In a nod to the building’s past, a Blockbuster membership card is embedded in the floor not far from the entrance. In the rear of the building is a large playground area with a basketball hoop.

The process that led to Ocean State Kidz Club opening its doors, Liddle said, was intensive. The space required a “total renovation,” from insulation and tiles to the installation of new lighting.

The end result has been a “complete transformation” and the creation of what Liddle calls “the safest building in Rhode Island.”

“We went through so much as business owners and entrepreneurs to get this building up to code,” she said.

On the afternoon of Feb. 14, several students played basketball with Shoeninger on the playground while Liddle and Tanya Townsend, the club’s site coordinator and on-site teacher, worked with several students inside.

Townsend, who was worked with Liddle for 10 years, spoke of the emphasis that the program places on helping students develop practical skills. In the sewing club, for example, students use buttons and zippers to fix clothing items in need of repair.

“We make sure that our activities have meaning, so it’s not just about cooking, it’s about learning cooking skills and how to utilize things in the kitchen … things that they’re going to need life-long,” she said.

Liddle noted that a seventh-grade boy who attends the program learned to sew the previous day.

“His mom was like, ‘How did that happen?’” she said with a smile.

Townsend also said “peer-to-peer learning” is a key focus of Ocean State Kidz Club’s programming. During study groups, for example, a student who is particularly strong in math or social studies will work with peers on those subjects.

“I match them up based on what works best,” she said. “I think that’s super important, that it’s not always just adult-driven education, but that it’s peer to peer, because statistically we know kids learn better when they’re teaching each other … They work together, which is super important.”

Liddle also spoke of the value of providing a “creative curriculum” for students in a peer-based setting.

“You need to do something after school. You need to be a part of something … You’re meeting new friends, seeing old friends,” she said. “Middle school students, all they want to do is be with their friends … This is a place to be with your friends and try new things and learn different skills.”

Ocean State Kidz Club extends its collaborative approach to its students’ school-based activities, as well. Townsend, who spent two semesters at Park View during her practicum, works with teachers and parents to support classroom teaching. One parent, for example, allowed her to be part of the Google Classroom, so Townsend is able to interact with a student’s teacher and provide feedback and assistance with homework assignments.

“I’m getting permission from parents to be able to communicate personally and privately with teachers to best support students,” she said.

She added, “I know the team and some of the teachers over there and the administration … That’s really been beneficial for me in supporting the kids here.”

That relationship with Park View has proven beneficial for larger groups of children, too. For example, multiple students were using the web-based study application Quizlet in their lessons, and Townsend was able to plan an activity around it.

“It was kind of like trivia, and the kids had a blast,” she said.

Liddle said Ocean State Kidz Club hopes to expand its connection to Park View and the broader Rhode Island community in other ways. She noted that the club recently took students to watch the Park View basketball team play in a game leading up to its state championship victory, and intends to utilize school facilities in its physical fitness and athletic programming.

The club also plans a series of “Friday Night Lights” events, the first of which is scheduled for March 1. Liddle envisions the gatherings – which will be open to all middle school students in Rhode Island – as “a prom, a basketball game and dinner, all in one.”

“It’s basically a night out for them,” she said.

Townsend said activities such as attending Park View sports games, using the school’s athletic fields and welcoming students and families to the “Friday Night Lights” gatherings are an important aspect of the facility’s goal of “being part of the community.”

Townsend and Liddle both stressed that Ocean State Kidz Club aims to provide an inclusive environment.

“We accept diversity,” Townsend said. “We are completely ADA compliant throughout the entire building. We really want to highlight that … We’re very careful with food allergies.”

Two of the students who attend Ocean State Kidz Club helped provide a tour on Feb. 14 and spoke about their experiences.

Jerrica Johnson said she appreciates being able to focus on schoolwork during her time at the program.

“We can do more work here and have more free time at home. That’s really helpful,” she said.

Mia Walters, who has been friends with Jerrica for several years, said she enjoys being able to take part in a range of activities with her peers in a setting outside the classroom. She also appreciates learning “life skills” during her time in the program.

“My friends are right here,” she said. “We can ask each other ‘How was your day?’”

Liddle said Ocean State Kidz Club had 13 children enrolled as of Feb. 14, near the end of its first week of operation. The program has a capacity of 80 students, she said, and interest is growing as word about the facility gets out.

“We’re really good at what we do … Our best advertisement is the kids,” she said.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas, who represents the Park View area, attended a recent open house event at Ocean State Kidz Club. She praised Liddle and Schoeninger for their efforts.

“They put lots of hard work into this building, bringing it up to code and assuring families their kids will be safe … They will be an asset not only to our neighborhood,” she said.

For more information about Ocean State Kidz Club, visit oceanstatekidzri.com, call 227-9303 or email oceanstatekidzri@gmail.com.

Additional information about Liddle’s gluten-free coaching services is available at lauraliddle.com.