By Liz Barker Alvarez

About 90% of a child’s critical brain development happens by age 5. Because of this, a child’s experiences in those critical early years determine whether her brain will develop in ways that promote good health and learning.

“Children who have quality early education experiences are more prepared when they enter kindergarten and do better in school,” says Dr. Pamela Powell, Associate Professor of Literacy and Early Childhood at Northern Arizona University and Vice Chair of the First Things First Board. “Skills like motivation, self-control, focus and self-esteem are rooted in early childhood and are learned from interactions with adults.”

Quality early learning experiences can happen at home, in the care of friends or family members, or in regulated settings, like child care and preschool. What matters most is that infants, toddlers and preschoolers are in settings that include: positive, nurturing experiences with adults; environments that encourage creativity and imaginative play; and hands-on activities that encourage positive brain connections.

Families are their child’s first and most important teachers. Some crucial things caregivers can do to promote brain development and ensure their children are ready for school include: read and play with infants, toddlers and preschoolers; and, if your child attends child care or preschool, be sure it is high quality.

Reading with Young Children

Just 15-30 minutes of daily reading together can have a tremendous impact on children. For infants, reading and other interactions with adults help their brains learn the sounds needed to develop language. As they grow, reading helps babies understand that objects have names, and that words represent those names. As children get older, reading helps them to learn letters, sounds, vocabulary, and higher concepts such as: past/present tense, subject/verb agreement, critical thinking, and, of course, the knowledge the books’ content has to offer.

First Things First has videos, available on YouTube, with tips on how to read with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Also, Read On Arizona has a wealth of resources at readonarizona.org to help parents instill a love of reading in their children, including an early literacy guide, reading logs and book suggestions for various ages.

The Power of Play

While not always apparent to adults, children pick up myriad skills by playing together. Simon Says teaches impulse control, and, what looks like a group of 3-year-olds building a fort actually involves a great deal of problem solving, creative thinking, negotiating and teamwork.

To encourage play, families can:

• Become advocates for play: open your home and schedule time for play. Re-evaluate structured activities.
• Provide the resources for stimulating play: varied objects visible to children that allow opportunities for thinking and exploration.
• Join in the fun, but let your child take the lead.
• Encourage your child to use his imagination.

By honoring play as a natural way children learn, we encourage their success in school and life.

Quality Child Care

Quality First, a signature program of First Things First, partners with child care providers and preschools to improve the quality of their early learning programs. Through its website, QualityFirstAZ.com, the program also provides information to families to inform their decisions about child care and preschool, including a checklist of questions to ask providers and a listing of providers who participate in Quality First.

The checklist covers areas that represent crucial components of a quality early learning setting, including: nurturing teacher/child interactions, including infants; preferred teacher/child ratios; and, stimulating indoor and outdoor environments.

Brenda Thomas, who has served as a preschool, kindergarten and elementary school teacher, says quality early interactions will make a difference in whether children embrace learning or struggle in school.

“The one thing that matters above all things, whether the child care is given in the home or whether it’s given in some other setting, is the quality that is given,” Thomas adds.
First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. Decisions about how those funds are spent are made by local councils staffed by community volunteers. To learn more, visit azftf.gov.

School Readiness Resources

Kindergarten has changed a lot since most of us started school. Today’s 5-year-olds are expected to arrive with basic academic and social skills so they are prepared on day one to start learning to read, write and do basic math. Here’s a sample from a list – taken from a national survey of kindergarten teachers a couple of years ago – of skills that can help ease the transition to kindergarten:

• Child pretends to read. Understands that words are read from left to right. Looks at pictures and tells a story.
• Recognizes own name and tries to write it.
• Counts to 10 and can count objects.
• Pays attention & follows simple directions.
• Can repeat sequences of numbers,
sounds and parts of stories.
• Controls a pencil and crayon well.
Cuts shapes and pastes them on paper.
• Is potty trained. Dresses self.
Brushes own teeth.
• Recognizes authority. Shares with others.
• Works independently.
• Can separate from a parent easily.

In Arizona, there are two valuable resources to help families understand what infants, toddlers and preschoolers should know (understand) and be able to do (competencies and skills) across multiple domains of development during specific age ranges, as well as what adults can do to support children’s optimal learning and development.

Those documents are available in the Early Learning section of the Arizona Department of Education website (www.azed.gov) and include Arizona’s Infant and Toddler Developmental Guidelines and Arizona’s Early Learning Standards.

Both resources describe how young children need stimulation to develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. They also describe what provide some strategies families can use to enhance their own children’s optimal development.

Families may also use the documents to develop greater awareness of developmental milestones within the context of discussions with child care providers, home visitors, pediatricians, public health nurses or other educators directly involved with the family.

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