Giving Thought: Face time between parent and child

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Many children show up for the first day of kindergarten unprepared. They don’t have enough experience with words, language and social interaction to begin classroom learning. Kindergarten is only the beginning of a child’s school career, but learning begins at birth and the pre-K years provide the brain’s foundation for all future learning.

Rick Blauvelt, executive director of Glenwood Springs-based Raising a Reader Aspen to Parachute, is perhaps the Roaring Fork Valley’s head cheerleader for the idea of reading and talking to your kids. He says that the main “engine” of brain development in early childhood is social interaction with parents and caregivers.

Aspen Community Foundation: The RAR mission centers on children, but the program focuses heavily on parents. Can you explain?

Rick Blauvelt: In this region we have many elementary schools where 50 percent of children or more show up and require intensive intervention. It’s similar across the state and it’s similar across the nation. More often than not, this has to do with a deficit of social engagement and one-on-one interaction at home.

Raising a Reader provides books to families and that’s how most people know us. But really we view those books as a parent engagement tool. The books are a reminder to parents — to put everything else aside and spend time interacting with their children. It’s about enriching natural family bonds so that those bonds stimulate verbal expression, curiosity and love of learning. The books are really a vehicle and a reminder.

ACF: Is it harder for families to “raise a reader” in today’s plugged-in environment?

RB: Yes. Many of our parents are working multiple jobs, they’re pressed for time and screens are just another distraction. And then too it becomes easier to entertain the child with a screen. This is particularly problematic for children from newborn to age 5, because that’s the period of the most rapid brain development. That brain development heavily depends on direct, eye-to-eye engagement with parents. If screens start to interfere with that one-on-one engagement, then the child’s language development will be impaired, which in turn negatively affects their brain growth.

Kids are resilient, they can recover from this, but the statistics indicate that most will not. The lack of stimulation has occurred during a critical period of brain growth. If they arrive at kindergarten and they’re ready, then they’re far more likely to succeed.

ACF: How does Raising a Reader reach the families who need this kind of help?

RB: Two ways. The first is we partner with preschools and kindergarten teachers in places where we suspect there are at-risk kids. At the preschool level, we work with Head Start, the Preschool on Wheels (which is part of the Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative) and other classrooms where many children receive need-based scholarships. When we go into a classroom, we provide a book bag for each child with four books. The books are kept for a week and then returned and replaced each week with another four books. And it’s not just at-risk children who benefit. The research shows that all children are more successful in school when they learn early that their parents will help them with great enthusiasm when books and assignments come home from school. Overall, about 1,800 kids get these weekly book bags.

We also search out families whose children are not in preschool. These are often high-risk families who may be isolated in the community and don’t feel they can afford preschool or don’t know about the options available to them. We hold regular, weekly sessions in six neighborhoods from Basalt to Rifle. Moms come with their children, we’ll read some books, we’ll talk to the moms about the importance of this engagement at home, and we’ll send them home with a book bag every week. We call this outreach program Bolsitas Rojas, or in English, the Little Red Bag Club.

ACF: What’s new in Raising a Reader Aspen to Parachute?

RB: Our expanded volunteer program. We thought we could help the teachers by putting a volunteer book bag manager in the classroom to help exchange the book bags once per week. While in the classroom, the volunteers can also read stories to the kids and help build excitement around the books.

One of the reasons Raising a Reader works is this: If we’ve educated and informed the parents, and then an excited child comes home with a book bag in hand— an implied assignment — it is hard for a parent to say, “Oh, no, we don’t have time.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.