TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Research conducted by United Way Suncoast has determined the Tampa Bay area is dealing with a childcare crisis, and they are working to combat it.

United Way Suncoast says less than 50% of students enter kindergarten ready to learn. They also say that in the Tampa Bay region, the average annual cost of childcare for a toddler is greater than the annual cost of tuition for a University of South Florida student.

UWS started a new program in March with a focus on kindergarten readiness.

“Most of our children that we’re looking at in 0 to 5 have been home,” said Ulas Butler. “Many of them have never entered into an educational environment or been in a play group or social setting where they were engaged with other children their same age.”

Butler is the Senior Manager of Education for UWS. He oversees their new Early Learning Center inside of the Campbell Park Resource Center in St. Petersburg.

“The first thing that happens here is play,” Butler said. “Children learn best through play. That’s how you will engage their brains.”

At the Early Learning Center, Butler focuses on getting kids ages 0 through 5 ready for kindergarten. The free program also teaches parents how to take their lessons home.

“It’s not just children learning through play, but engaging parents to help them recreate these experiences in their homes at the park, riding in their cars,” Butler said.

More than a dozen families have enrolled in the program, including Shaniese Hunt and her 2-year-old son, Samir.

“Samir is ready to go, take off. My daughter is more relaxed,” Hunt said. “The United Way program has helped me to manage how I parent Samir.”

Hunt said the program has her son wanting to learn and read more at home.

“He incorporates the play that we do at United Way at home,” she said. “He gathers his little cousins, and he’s like let’s read this book.”

She says it’s even made her a better parent.

“The program has taught me different ways to manage his meltdowns, manage not wanting to go to bed, not wanting to read, not wanting to eat,” Hunt said.

“Pinellas County is resource rich,” Butler said. “We have tons of resources but accessibility poor. We are trying to bridge that gap of connecting people with the resources they truly need.”

United Way Suncoast is hosting a virtual panel called State of Early Learning: Childcare Crisis Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 10 a.m. Registration is still open. 8 On Your Sides Deanne King is hosting the panel discussion.