Touch learning + community = independence for kids with Down syndrome

Kaitlyn Gage, daughter of founder Jennifer Gage, explains what Gigi’s Playhouse means to her while sitting in her favorite corner of the center. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

Tutor volunteer Laura St. John is one of over 40 volunteers who take their time to work one-on-one with the students. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

Gigi’s Playhouse used part of their grant from APS to purchase additional equipment to assist in teaching their members math. The touch math program assists the students in learning how to add and subtract. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

Jennifer Gage, founder of Gigi’s Playhouse in Scottsdale, opened the 21st location in the country to help provide resources to parents of children with Down syndrome. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

Gigi’s Playhouse is a nonprofit organization that started in Chicago and branched out to Scottsdale. They rely on fundraising and donations to keep their location open. This tree painted on one of the wall’s of Gigi’s Playhouse holds the names of some of the donors. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkte News)

Gigi’s Playhouse not only focuses on learning but also creates events such as crafts and dance parties for families to enjoy. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

Gigi’s Playhouse holds fundraisers throughout the year, with their kids being the sole focus of those fundraisers. Each member that fundraises money for Gigi’s Playhouse is honored with a portrait that is hung in the building. At the end of the year the participants get to take their portrait home. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

Gigi’s Playhouse Scottsdale is the only location in Arizona, with the first Gigi U opening in the first half of next year. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – A sensory touch technique can help people diagnosed with Down syndrome learn math and other lessons more readily, according to the leaders of a local nonprofit.

Gigi’s Playhouse uses learning tools to teach topics that can eventually lead to a job and independence, math coordinator Laura St. John said.

Students like Brett Schatzman can use a pointer with a Mickey Mouse hand at the end for math problems on a whiteboard or a 3-D number to learn math. Each number has a corresponding number of raised points: A plastic ‘three” has three raised points, a plastic “four” has four raised points. The students count the number of dots as they go to learn the number and gradually learn complex equations.

Pointer in hand, Schatzman added “425” and “974” to get the correct sum: 1,399. He smiled.

Sensory Learning

Brett Schatzman touches each circle on the number to count and add each number to come up with the sum. (Photo by Alyssa Williams/Cronkite News)

“It’s important because we all learn differently,” St. John said, adding some people are more visual learners and some rely on hearing to absorb information. “And, some people are very tactile, where it helps to touch and do things in order to learn.”

Cathy Judge, site coordinator and grandmother to member Kaitlyn Gage, said her granddaughter has advanced about four math levels since working one-on-one with the tutors.

The center was founded two years ago to confound some of the misconceptions surrounding those with Down syndrome, teach young people life skills and provide a community of families, according to its website.

Youths with Down syndrome sometimes struggle with basic job and life skills. About 60 percent of people surveyed in 2015 by the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability had jobs. Of those survey, about 30 percent said they were unemployed because of “lack of job-skill teaching programs and job coaching.”

Brett Schatzman did well in school, where he had a daily routine, place to be and a fulfilled life, said Marlene Schatzman, his mother. But he drifted a little until he started learning at Gigi’s Playhouse.

“That’s all we want, is to have somewhere to belong, and I think this gives him that,” she said as her son led visitors on a tour.

The center, which teaches people confidence and everyday skills to find a job, will expand by spring to add classrooms, store and cafe open to the public. Brett Schatzman and other students will get a chance to work there to use their job skills.

But he has even bigger ambitions.

One day, he says, he will run Gigi’s Playhouse.