Who knows what today is?" Patti Reiss asked a half-full party room of kids at the Mississippi Children's Museum on Nov. 25.
After a pause, some kids piped up: "Thanksgiving!"
"Almost! Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday. And today is Wednesday."
Reiss, the assistant director of programs at the museum, teaches a weekly early literacy program, "ABC, Come Play with Me." The class meets every Wednesday at 10 a.m. and is included in admission to the museum or free for members.
The program caters to children anywhere from 1 to 4 years old and encourages them to express themselves creatively. Reiss reads a story and interacts with the children throughout the piece. Then, the kids do a craft afterward. Reiss won't show the kids a model project for the craft and encourages them to use their own ideas to create whatever they are making that day.
"We not only reinforce literacy in the program, but we also reinforce gross motor and fine motor skills," Reiss said.
For children not at regular daycare centers, options like "ABC, Come Play with Me" give parents a break from teaching their children at home and provide new ideas for preparing children for kindergarten.
Leah Williamson has two children, and both Macy and Owen have frequented the class. Macy is 2 years old now and beginning to make small gains in literacy, Williamson said.
"Programs like this are fun and exciting," she said. "We put a craft with a story which helps her remember, and we talk about the book."
Getting Creative About Literacy
Education experts often site pre-K collaboratives and early education as the key to success in literacy and school later in life. In Mississippi, however, funding for early education is scarce.
The Mississippi Department of Education has started early education initiatives and requested $9 million in funding from the Legislature in the upcoming year to expand the program, but there are currently only 11 early learning collaboratives statewide serving 1,714 4-year-olds.
Daycare centers, parents and community organizations know they cannot wait for funding to take early education seriously and are developing programs to serve their young learners and prepare them for kindergarten.
GyElla Hinton has been a member at the Mississippi's Children Museum for almost three years. Her son, Caleb, is now 4 years old, and she brings him to the museum and occasionally to the literacy programs when he is on school breaks and during the summer. Hinton is a high-school teacher and recognizes the importance of developing fine and gross motor skills through crafts.
"When you're coloring, holding a crayon or marker translates to being able to hold a pencil and write," Hinton said. "Cutting things out is an important motor skill, so all of those things play into early literacy."
Reiss said programs like hers can help parents and educators begin to see what kind of learner their child will be whether they are visual, audible or kinesthetic.
"Some moms have figured out if they're left-handed or right-handed in this class—that's a developmental skill we can provide rather than the mom being home with her child and handing her the object," she said.
The Mississippi Children's Museum received a $5,000 grant from a Seattle-based timber company, the Plum Creek Foundation, which will help keep "ABC, Come Play with Me" active and buy materials to support the program.
Virtual Support for Early Ed
The Center for Education Innovation has sponsored an online hub for early childhood educators in Mississippi to find curriculum, trainings and discounts for products needed in their daycare centers.
The website, msearlylearningresources.org, is completely free and run by the Mississippi Alliance for Early Learning Resources. The program's director, Angela Carson, calls the site a "one-stop shop for resources" for early childhood educators.
She said the site has template forms, PowerPoints with trainings, discounts and other resources all on one website.
"All of that helps to improve the quality of services and education they can provide for the children," Carson said. "We want to see them at a higher level."
The alliance is hosting trainings for early educators to learn how to navigate the website and use all of its resources. Training is not mandatory to use the site, however, and educators can go to the site and register. Carson said the alliance has trained almost 300 centers statewide.
Nancy Sylvester, executive director of the Global Connections Learning Center in Jackson, has gone through training on the site and uses its resources in a lot of her work. She only wishes the website had been available when she first started her center.
"I had the certification, but I knew nothing about actually running a daycare or resources we needed in the daycare," she said. "I had to depend on other people and centers and kindergarten teachers."
Sylvester's center has children from 8-week-old babies to 5-year-olds, and she uses trainings and procedures from the alliance to train her teachers. She said the website also helps her center save money on things they buy in bulk.
Most importantly, however, Sylvester said information about Mississippi Early Childhood Standards, which start with 3- and 4-year-olds, and lesson plans for children to reach those standards are available on the site. Her center uses checklists for teachers to track reading, math and science skills in students. These checklists are shared with parents too, so parents can see where their child needs extra help at home.
"(The hub) let us know what those standards are, so you know what you need to work with them on to be prepared for kindergarten," Sylvester said.
The last training for the alliance website will be at Pearl Library from noon until 2 p.m. on Wed., Dec. 2. Comment at www.jfp.ms.