WFSU & Me - The Whitaker Family

July 10, 2018

Jen Whitaker and her trio of adorable ginger kids have been a constant across the years of our #wfsusummerchallenge initiative. We love keeping up with their annual explorations and crusades against the summer slide! Read about her experiences as a PBS KIDS parent in the following interview, and keep an eye out for a WFSU & Me video release in the near future.

How did you hear about WFSU’s Summer Challenge?

Our Family has been participating in the Summer Challenge since 2015. We originally found out about the challenge from a poster that was hanging up at our local Library. 

How has it impacted your family? 

The WFSU Summer Challenge has impacted our family in more ways than we ever imagined. The first year of our participation the Summer Challenge was an incredible blessing to our family, as our youngest (only 8 months old at the time) was diagnosed with Plagiocephaly and Torticollis. He required a helmet to help with his skull structure and development, as well as several therapy appointments each week. With two older (but still young, at ages 4 and 2) siblings, it was hard to not be able to do the typical “summer” stuff that year. With the helmet, we were forced to stay indoors most days, because it was simply too hot for the baby with his helmet, and swimming or beach trips were out of the question, as well. We also had struggled to find positive, non-screen-time activities for the older kids to do during the baby’s therapy appointments. The WFSU Summer Challenge had an answer for every obstacle we faced that summer, but it was so much more than that. During a summer, when I feared my children would worry that they were missing out, they had found something that made them feel the exact opposite. They were active and engaged on a daily basis, and in a variety of ways, doing activities that they easily connected with, because most everything “assigned” as part of the challenge was related, in one way or another, to one of their favorite PBS Kids characters. During a summer when they could have felt isolated from friends, and left out of activities, my children had unending fun with their PBS Kids “friends” and had more activities to do than we had time to do them!

As a parent, the benefits didn’t end there. The activities we participate in as part of the Summer Challenge help to educate my children, in a fun and exciting way. We read, do science experiments, explore nature, and more. To this day, I credit that first year in the Summer Challenge for my children’s love for books and reading.

I also found a world of resources at my fingertips. Resources that I never knew existed. I already loved PBS Kids shows/programs, but then there was just an endless buffet of resources attached to those shows. And not just for children, but for the adults in their lives, as well. Educators, parents, there is something for all of us. Seeing how dedicated PBS is to equipping and empowering our communities—from families to schools and all the things in between—inspired me to do more with my children. The Summer Challenge didn’t just change our summers, it has changed the way we do life from day-to-day!

Since that first year, the WFSU Summer Challenge has continued to expand and improve. There are new challenges for our family, different themes or focuses each year, and, it always seems that they are right in line with where the schools and communities are focused. This year, there seems to be a heavier emphasis on STEM/STEAM. Last year, with the late-Summer eclipse, the space theme was perfect. Each year, the Summer Challenge exposes my children to something new, and encourages them to explore topics in more depth than they had before. Yet, even with the themes/focuses each year, there is still an endless variety of ways to be involved.

With my oldest two now in Elementary School, it’s great to have the Summer Challenge helping us avoid the Summer Slump. Once again, it is a fun and exciting way for my children to continue being engaged and educated, and it requires no pushing from me. They look forward to the Summer Challenge each year, and by the beginning of May they begin counting down the days to when we can start!

I cannot say enough about what the WFSU Summer Challenge means to our family. I can only say that if you have not tried it, no matter what age your children are, your family will be blessed when you do!

What have been your family’s favorite checklist items? 

We always enjoy exploring our community by visiting the different Community Classroom Consortium Passport stops. We also love finding science projects on the PBS LearningMedia site or other sites we have been pointed to over the years. And, of course, the reading challenge. As I mentioned before, our kids love of books originated from our participation in the Summer Challenge several years ago, and so, reading is just something we love to do as a family. Checking books off the PBS Summer Reading List is always a favorite activity for us.

Have you learned about any new community locations thanks to the Passport? 

Yes! Each year there are a number of places we haven’t been to. Of course, there are always our favorites too. Our first year, we discovered The Sharing Tree, which is now a favorite for us year-round. This year the Gadsden County Art Center was new to us and we are counting down the days to going there. We’ve also enjoyed visiting some of the state parks we had not explored before, and, believe it or not, even though my husband works at the State Capitol, none of us had ever been to the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, so visiting there was extra special too! The Museum of Florida History was another favorite. You just never know what places in the community are family/kid-friendly, but once you see them listed there, you know they are and the pressure is off! It’s such a simple thing, but it makes a difference for a family with three young children to know what places in the community are good for kids!

Has your family had a favorite Kick-Off Event? 

I believe the kids enjoyed this year’s Kick-Off Event the most. They absolutely LOVED the Touch Tank and the food truck was a huge perk for us adults as well! The really great thing about the Kick-Off events, to me, however, is how different they are each year. That is the best thing for kids. Some staples are great to have each year, but changing things up, makes each year new and exciting. If it is always the same, the kids get bored and disinterested. Especially with something that they have been doing since they were younger, if it starts to become old hat, they start to wonder if it they are too old for it. That has NEVER happened for our family, and that is just evidence of how wonderful the event is each year! Honestly, because of how it changes from year-to-year, every year is our favorite, it’s just always for a different reason (for example, my middle son would tell you that he loved the SWAT team truck from a couple of years ago)!

What’s your favorite PBS KIDS show / resource? 

This is an almost impossible question to answer. And depending on who you ask in our family, you’ll get a different answer. However, I would have to say it is a tie between Wild Kratts and SciGirls. My kids love Wild Kratts, and you wouldn’t believe how many times they’ve been able to list off facts about animals they learned about on Wild Kratts. Even my 3-year old has astonished adults with the things he knows from that show. They often put my husband and I to shame with what they know about animals. It obviously knows exactly HOW to teach kids about that topic, because it isn’t just FUN to watch/learn, but it is information that is being retained.

SciGirls is another favorite. We only just found it this year, but there is a fascination in this house with watching REAL-LIVE kids (like themselves) DO science. And not just the type of “plain science” that some science shows will have, but the kind of science that appeals to them because it is creative and answers questions that KIDS have. I think that is a very unique and successful aspect of Sci Girls. It is difficult for adults to come up with what a child would, but with SciGirls, they don’t have to (or they do a very good job of it) and that has made that a great show/resource for us.

The PBS Kids App and all the many sites that are associated with the shows are great too. It’s really too much to name just one or even ten!

kid hugging ready jet go

What more could WFSU do to support your family and/or this community? 

I don’t know that you could do MORE. Though, I know you continue to try. The Ruff Ruffman science camp was an amazing opportunity for our community and my child. We were thrilled to be a part of that, and I think it was an amazing program. One thing that I’d say, is that PBS/WFSU does a wonderful job of equipping and empowering families and the community to be engaged with education and other things, but as a family unit, I’d love to see more FAMILY opportunities throughout the school year. For example, a cooking class that brings family units together on a Saturday morning and teaches parents what skills different aged children should/can handle in the kitchen (and/or how to teach those skills) and then have opportunities for parents and children to cook together. It reminds me of one of the SciGirls episodes and I think that kids and adults would love things like that! I love the concept of not just doing and offering things for the sake of having them, but to have purpose in them—to equip and empower—and I believe if you stick with that mission/purpose in all you do, you’ll continue to do as much for this community as ever and that has been a blessing!

How else have you engaged with WFSU?

Other than keeping up with WFSU on Social Media throughout the year, the only time we have engaged with WFSU is when our oldest participated in the Ruff Ruffman Science Camp this Summer. We are just moving out of the nap phase of life with our youngest, so more and more is becoming a possibility for us, and we do look forward to engaging more! We appreciate all the opportunities that are offered and all that WFSU does to improve and contribute to our community. We are a better community because of WFSU!

Meet the Team: Allison!Edscoop Spotlight: Tiffany Torres, IFAS Extension