ONTARIO -- On a Wednesday afternoon, a group of nearly a dozen children tossed around a ball at Nationwide Children’s Ontario Close to Home Center.

One of the smallest girls in the room crouched down a bit, then sprung up, sending the purple plastic ball flying a short distance across the room to a similar sized boy, who caught it with ease. 

“What’s your favorite color?” she asked.

“Blue,” he responded without any pause. A chorus of “me too’s” and other favorite colors started up, and then, he passed the ball along to another.

It’s a simple game perhaps many children played growing up. But for the children in the Ontario Close to Home Center’s Summer Social Skills group, the game is one way they learn appropriate skills to better interact with others. 

“In this eight-week program, the topics build. They learn to introduce themselves to a new friend, learn when to end a conversation and to read social cues and nuances,” said Kristen Crish, a speech language pathologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. 

This year, she even teamed up with the Renaissance Theatre to further improve the program.

The students in the social skills group will learn about theater etiquette from local high school-aged actors and actresses and have an opportunity to later attend a sensory friendly show at the downtown theater. 

The Renaissance Theatre’s director of education, community engagement and symphony, Maddie Penwell, was immediately interested in the collaboration. 

“This is something I have a real passion for -- figuring out ways that the arts and theater community and the Renaissance can better serve our community,” she said. “We offer so much, but this helps us figure out what are the specific needs we need to address? What are we already doing, or maybe what we could do better?” 

She said the theater staff has researched how to put on sensory friendly shows. But by partnering with the Ontario Close to Home Center, she said they can learn even more to further enhance their shows.

High school students from theater made videos for the younger children at the center to watch and even met them in-person July 10 at one of the earliest lessons. 

“The Ren is a staple in the Mansfield community, so it’s great being able to team up and collaborate. And the way they were so receptive of us is unbelievable,” Crish said. 

She thinks the high school students make ideal models for the children in her program. 

“They can see the theater kids doing these skills and then that’s what they will replicate,” she said. 

Skills include how to take turns, initiate conversations, wait in lines and more. The group is offered for children entering grades 1 through 4. 

“For us, we see success as our kids taking just a few skills and being able to apply them,” Crish said.

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