Getting back to basics

Learning: Program says parents can give children an advantage with simple reading and everyday tasks.

November 16, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Toss those black-and-white flashcards and quit piping Mozart into the nursery. Instead of spending hundreds on Spanish for Six-Month-Olds, try your best to remember the words to "Baa Baa Black Sheep."

So says the science behind a new early intervention program started this year at Howard County's Running Brook Elementary School.

"Children who know four or more nursery rhymes within the first few years of life are some of the best readers in the classroom," said Laura F. Lee, a "parent educator" in Running Brook's program. "Rhyming helps them to make sense of reading."

According to the concept behind the Parents as Teachers program, reading, singing, crafts-work and other organized playing is the best kind of kindergarten-prep parents can provide their infants and toddlers.

The program is a bit like home-schooling, but the lessons are a little different.

A "class" schedule might look something like this:

10:30 a.m. -- Bubble-blowing

11:07 a.m. -- Macaroni treasure hunt

11:40 a.m. - Snack and nap

2:45 p.m. -- Dancing to a silly song

The program focuses on children's early years to help parents understand what to expect during each stage of a child's development, and what simple things they can do together with their children to help them be more prepared to learn in school.

The parent educators, who are all trained in neuroscience research, offer parents practical and hands-on ways to encourage learning and promote strong parent-child relationships.

"If you start out with these kids, even when they're just 2 years old, it really does a make a difference when they get to school," said parent educator Regina Coleman.

That's why she, Lee and the two other parent educators in the program go out to make their weekly home visits armed with trunks full of blocks and Play-Doh, dolls and coloring books, stacking rings and tubs of uncooked macaroni.

The toys and songs and mushing, oozing and squishing all are learning tools.

Bubble-blowing helps develop cheek and mouth muscles, which will aid in language skills later on, parents learn. It also teaches cause and effect.

Dancing, jumping and climbing develop a child's gross motor skills. Coloring - yes, even outside the lines - strengthens fine motor skills.

"When kids are digging through tubs of macaroni for tiny objects like a treasure hunt, it's giving them sensory information," Lee said. "And also, if they've got different objects for them to match, they're learning sorting. It's all easy stuff that parents can do at home, and it's cheap. And the kids love it."

The award-winning program was established in 1981 in Missouri as a pilot program for first-time parents of newborns. By 1998, 2,000 PAT programs were under way in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and St. Lucia.

Howard County began its first program this year at Running Brook. Similar programs are in operation in Carroll, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and other area school systems.

The Howard program has proved extremely popular, just by word of mouth from parents already enrolled. The four parent educators see 41 children in 33 families every week, and 14 families are on a waiting list.

"It's growing daily. It's unbelievable," Lee said.

Over the years, research has shown that children who have been in the program are generally more advanced in language, problem-solving and social development. They score higher on standardized tests and do better in math and reading in kindergarten.

In many cases, results can be observed almost immediately, parents and program officials say.

On one recent home visit, Coleman's two charges, 30-month-old Meghan and 3-month-old Carolyn displayed unusual savvy.

Meghan recognized colors and knew that doughnuts are shaped like "ovals."

At 3 months old, Carolyn's head bobs and wobbles and her little red toes are splayed in inconceivable directions, but her dark eyes were steadied on the book in her mother's hand.

As Kate Reynolds turned the pages of the cardboard book, with Carolyn nestled in the crook of one arm, the infant, who can barely recognize herself in a mirror, focused on the bright pictures and oversize words like the bouncing ball in a sing-along.

Just two weeks before, Kate Reynolds said her baby girl would stare wobbly into space when she tried to read to her.

Coleman, however, encouraged her to keep on reading to her wriggling daughter - tiny board books, puffy plastic books, and books she made herself out of Ziploc bags and family photographs. The rewards, Coleman said, would come in the long term.

"You really have to remember that it's important to read to them even though they don't seem to be getting much out of it," Kate Reynolds said.

"One day," Coleman said, "the light bulb will go on."

The Reynoldses are fairly well-off, especially compared with the 61 percent in the program who come from single-parent homes or whose families speak little English.

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