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A Place Where They Take Play Seriously : Family: The daily struggles of many teen-age parents leave little time for much else. A program at L.A. Children's Museum shows them how crucial it is to embrace fun.

November 02, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cynthia Alvarez, 17, and 7-month-old son Nathan had come out to play. It's something she and other high school moms have little time for most days.

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Monday through Friday, she's up at 4 a.m. so she and Nathan can catch a 5:30 bus to Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, where she's in class and he's in the campus infant center until 3:10 p.m. Then, she says, "I go home and cook and clean the house. By the time the day's over, we just go to sleep."

Cynthia was one of 18 young mothers--and one dad--from Roosevelt spending a few carefree hours at the Los Angeles Children's Museum, the first participants in the museum's "Learn to Play--Play to Learn" teen-age parenting project.

Together, parents and kids hopped on a motorcycle, splashed in water, made tunnels and towers from foam forms, and explored the Cave of the Dinosaurs. (Godzilla had been put under wraps, a bit too realistic for toddlers.)

"It was fun!" said Elvira Barrios, 17, who had 20-month-old daughter Sydney in tow. If there's one thing she's learned since Sydney was born, it's that motherhood "is a 24-hour job, seven days a week--no holidays."

Fun is the idea behind this pilot program--and, says Candace Barrett of the museum staff, "We take play very seriously. You can learn a lot by watching your kids play. Play is where they learn to communicate, to share, to work out problems."

She adds: "A lot of these moms are in a place where they need to play too--in a safe environment." Although some jumped right in, she noticed, others held back at first. "They have no sense of what play is."

It was not coincidence that only one dad was in the group. "Some of the babies' fathers are in prison; some are no longer with them," says Mattie Floyd, teacher-director of the Roosevelt Infant Center.

Even for those in relationships, it's a rough road. Theirs is a world of formula and diapers, not football games and proms. Like other high school students, many dream of college and careers.

Lorena Garcia, 18, a sophomore, dropped out for two years after becoming pregnant with Caesar, now 18 months. She decided to return to school--"for his future. Without school, we don't have a future." She's been with Caesar's father, Caesar Alonso, 22, a busboy, for three years, and they plan to marry in December.

Lorena says she has no regrets about having had a baby so young. "I'd been waiting for him for a long time. When I was 9 years old, I wanted a baby."

Sylvia and Jose Monroy, both 19, have taken Adrian, 16 months, to the museum. He has painted a big blue blob on Mom's cheek. "I dropped out in 11th grade because I was pregnant," Sylvia says, "but I couldn't get a job." So she went back to school. She and Jose, a market employee, met in junior high, have been together three years and were married 18 months ago. She talks a bit wistfully of the fun she has missed. Raising a child, going to school and working 20 hours a week as a restaurant hostess leave little time for play.

The pattern is all too familiar to Floyd. Although she preaches birth control or abstinence, her advice falls largely on deaf ears. "I tell them, 'Have as many kids as you want, but now is not the appropriate time.' " Still, she says, "After all they've seen, they'll go and get pregnant. The guys want them to have the babies, and then they disappear."

She is proud that most of her girls finish school. Frequently, the fathers are older--and they are not her allies. "They don't want them in school. They're jealous. There are a lot of guys on campus."

And, Floyd says, it breaks her heart that the mothers are getting younger all the time. "A 12- or 13-year-old should be playing with a doll, not going to a prenatal clinic."

That's the idea behind the "Learn to Play--Play to Learn" workshops, which continue into December. Ellen Melinkoff, executive director of the co-sponsor, the Center for Childhood, liked what she saw in this first group: "These parents didn't seem self-conscious" about play.

Cristina Garcia, 17, with son Michael, 8 months, expects another baby in January. A senior, she's married to Joe Windelver, 19, a clerk. She's determined to graduate "for my two kids." That means day classes and night school.

Nancy Ballardo, 16, recently broke up with the father of her daughter, Ashley, 17 months. They'd been together since she was 13 and he was 18. "I feel bad, but I keep going," she says. The father comes by when he can but works two jobs to help her with Ashley and 7-month-old Ariella. "It's been hard," says Nancy, who works part time and lives with her parents. "But I have hope and faith that I'll make it."

The museum visit was more than a onetime fun break. Participants were given family memberships, in hopes they'll return often.

Berthania Carswell, coordinator of the play project, liked the way adults and kids "made a point of trying everything." She raised two younger siblings and understands the need for grown-up playtime.

When the group was asked if anyone had been to the museum before, three young women said they'd come as kids on school field trips. But they'd never thought of bringing their own children.

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