Touch learning + community = independence for kids with Down syndrome

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.