FEDERALSBURG, Md. -- Research is in on 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 such as Sally Cicotte and YMCAs in low-income 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.
In a spare room at the library in the small rural town of Federalsburg, 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 some 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.
The goal is to help the children develop the skills they’ll 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. The adults sit with the children and talk to them as they play together.
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, including ones in the Florida Suncoast, Washington state’s Grays Harbor and Kansas City, Mo. In some places, school districts helped the Y’s find neighborhoods where children needed the extra support.
Barb Roth, national director for youth and family programs for the YMCA USA, said her organization decided to reach out to children who didn’t go to preschool, and it chose a program modeled on one developed in Hawaii that encouraged the caregivers to teach. It’s had good results, she said.
“We’re intentionally starting very early because we believe it’s more cost-effective than remediation when a child has been behind for years,” she said.
A former day care provider and avid volunteer in her children’s schools, Cicotte, who leads the program in eastern Maryland, works hard to get the word out. She handed out fliers at a Walmart health fair and at churches and public school events, and she posted about it on Facebook. The twice-weekly classes are offered free of charge.
“I think there’s a high need for it, and I wish we could get more people to attend," she said, even though on a recent day a class of 16 children – all below the age of 5 – kept her enormously busy.
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.”