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Ready to learn?

From infancy, children soak up learning. Whether they're listening to a story, stacking blocks or scribbling with crayons, they're building skills they'll need when they start school. The stakes are high. Re-search indicates that children who beg...

From infancy, children soak up learning.

Whether they're listening to a story, stacking blocks or scribbling with crayons, they're building skills they'll need when they start school.

The stakes are high. Re-search indicates that children who begin kin-dergarten ready to learn are more likely to succeed in school and life.

The Duluth-based Northland Foundation and five other foundations around the state have become a driving force in improving early care and education for young children. Four years ago, they formed the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative to help young children and their families. The Mc-Knight Foundation provided $6.2 million to launch the effort and pay for it through the next three years.

The initiative is shepherding 64 grass-roots coalitions around the state, including 10 in Northeastern Minnesota. Each coalition identifies needs in its community and comes up with projects, such as sharing literacy information at early childhood screenings and finding ways to help children make the transition to kindergarten.

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Lynn Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation and the Kids Plus director, leads the team that oversees the initiative and the Northland Foundation is the central coordinating organization.

"Early childhood really is everybody's responsibility," said Haglin, a former early childhood educator and kindergarten teacher. "Giving kids a good start is critical to their development."

WHY IT'S IMPORTANT

Young children are primed for learning and need a nurturing, enriched environment to thrive.

Picture young children who have caregivers who read to them, talk with them and play with them. They are in homes, child-care centers and preschools where they have art materials and simple toys. As they have fun, they develop the basic skills they'll need to learn words and numbers, to do things on their own and to get along with others. Contrast that with children whose caregivers seldom talk or read to them or who plop them in front of a television for hours at a time.

Making sure children are ready for kindergarten doesn't mean you have to take what's taught in kindergarten and teach it at an earlier age, said Marilyn Larson, supervisor of early childhood programs in the Duluth school district.

It means children feel safe, trust adults and have had a rich set of experiences, she said. For example, they are exposed to a wide vocabulary and know such things as what farm animals look like, she said.

"The other thing is to instill a love of learning and reading and a love of books, and to really understand that conversations with children are very important in terms of increasing their fluency with vocabulary," Larson said. "The more words they have and the more fluent they are in using them, the more successful they will be in school."

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If children enter kindergarten with a limited vocabulary, school can be an uphill battle, she said.

Some studies have shown that children who are school-ready eventually have a higher graduation rate and perform better in the work force, said Todd Otis, president of Ready 4 K, a statewide early childhood advocacy group. The skill level of the future work force is one reason the business community has become involved in supporting early childhood issues, he said.

"A huge amount of brain development occurs in the first five years," Otis said. "We have to be attentive to quality parenting, child care and early education."

SPREADING THE WORD

Getting the word out about the importance of high-quality early care and education has been one of the initiative's key tasks.

This year, the Northland Foundation and coordinators from the Northeastern Minnesota coalitions produced the "Getting School Ready in Minnesota Guide." About 125,000 copies have been distributed around the state.

The 16-page booklet offers specifics on what children need to know to be ready for school and gives tips on how parents, caregivers and teachers can help them learn. For example, playing a counting game helps with number skills while teaching rhymes helps with word skills.

"Parents think they need to buy fancy educational toys, but they don't," Haglin said.

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The Northland Foundation and coalition coordinators also created a Learning Toolkit Backpack. The backpack included items such as crayons, paper, scissors, a book, a healthy snack, a toothbrush and toothpaste, tips for parents and caregivers and a letter from the local superintendent welcoming the child to the district. Backpacks were distributed at early childhood screenings in 28 school districts in Northeastern Minnesota this year.

Otis said the initiative's foundations are his organization's single most important partner in increasing public awareness of school readiness in greater Minnesota. The initiative has a thoughtful process of bringing people together to identify needs, resources and plans for local projects, he said.

"They've made a really significant impact on getting communities focused on young children," Otis said.

LINDA HANSON covers family issues and religion. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5335 or by e-mail at lhanson@duluthnews.com .

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