Research confirms the importance of early childhood education, but it remains out of reach for many.
Good preschool isn’t cheap. Federally supported Head Start has waiting lists.
So people and YMCAs in communities across the country are doing what they can, with the collaboration of the mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors who take care of babies and preschoolers all day.
Wichita is a substantial player in the trend, with a number of programs providing early learning to more than 5,200 children of preschool age, said Emily Lies, vice president for child care and camps for the Greater Wichita YMCA.
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Overall, it’s the largest state-licensed pre-kindergarten care and education program in the area and one facet of a “long and strong” national commitment by YMCA to education and community improvement, Lies said.
Throughout the nation, the Y’s programs work to foster cognitive, social, nutritional and other skills to help the children succeed when they reach kindergarten.
In happens in places like a spare room at the library in the rural town of Federalsburg, Md. Sally Cicotte sat smiling before a small circle of 2- to 4-year-olds and their mothers and other caregivers. Laminated cards with pictures and words served as prompts for questions:
What’s the weather today?
The name of the month?
The color of the week?
“Pink again!” declared Kayleigh Williamson, nearly 3, who minutes later quickly crouched down, eager to be a little pumpkin seed in a song about growing.
“She’s the only one I have and I stay home with her, so this is great for her to get the socialization with other children,” said Kayleigh’s mother, Becca Williamson.
She and other participants said they also liked picking up tips on songs, finger games and other activities at the 13 “interest centers” in what the YMCA calls its Early Learning Readiness Program for Informal Family, Friend and Neighbor Caregivers. The centers include suggestions for adults about how to engage children with stories, puzzles, Play-Doh, counting objects and other things that are easy to do at home.
Wichita has a small program that essentially mirrors the one in Federalsburg, based in the Evergreen Library, 2601 N. Arkansas. The Early Learning Readiness Program focuses on teaching both the children and the caregivers, Lies said.
“It’s very much role modeling,” she said.
In addition to on-site activities, a big part of the program is encouraging caregivers to continue the children’s learning process at home. It can be as simple as learning the right way to read to a child and ask questions about the stories to encourage retention and cognitive skills. The educators also encourage guided play to help with the learning process, such as neighborhood nature walking and sidewalk chalk art.
Information imparted is “very good for all children to know and all caregivers to know,” Lies said.
The program is funded by grants from the national YMCA and the local branch of Children’s Miracle Network, Lies said. It runs four days a week, in English only on Mondays and Wednesdays and bilingual with Spanish on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At present, the program has about 10 kids and their caregivers, but could handle twice as many, Lies said.
The Greater Wichita YMCA also offers much larger early-education programs through Early Learning Centers at three of its branches and Child Development Centers at Wichita’s public high schools, Lies said.
The Early Learning Centers at the South, East and Andover YMCA branches offer state licensed Pre-K programs and all-day day care, Lies said.
The Child Development Centers at the high schools are designed with a threefold mission: teaching the children Pre-K skills, helping teen parents develop their own parenting skills, and providing practical experience and high school credit for students interested in child-care occupations, Lies said.
Teen parents who are working toward finishing high school have first priority for placement of their children in the program. USD 259 employees get second priority, and remaining space is offered to the community at large, Lies said.
The Early Learning Readiness program at Evergreen is free, while the other services are on a sliding scale based on ability to pay, with some scholarships available, Lies said.
Nationally, the goal is to help the children develop the skills they will need for a good start at school – knowing their letters and numbers – but also some ease with how to sit in a group, answer questions and use their imagination.
YMCA of the USA started a few of the programs in a test run two years ago. With a $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, it’s now available through 36 YMCAs nationwide.
Helen Blank, the director of child care and early education at the National Women’s Law Center, said the YMCA’s approach “makes a lot of sense because so many caregivers at home with infants and children are not getting the kind of support they need.” And, she added, “We know the first five years are critical.”
“As long as we have waiting lists both for child care and pre-kindergarten, it’s important to develop innovative ways of reaching those children,” she said.
“Our support for children from birth to age 5 is generally one big gaping hole.”