Frederick Douglass believed that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. It is equally true that a vibrant and flourishing society begins with strong families who produce capable children. As parents ourselves, we believe that the pivotal role of parents in the lives of young children is especially meaningful and worthy of focused attention.
To that end, as families across the commonwealth gather to celebrate Mother’s and Father’s Days this year, the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation has partnered with the Library of Virginia to celebrate the time period between May 11 and June 15 with a campaign called Smart Beginnings Start with Families. This campaign seeks to likewise honor and recognize the tremendous influence that mothers and fathers have on their own families and on society at large.
Research into brain development highlights the long-term impact of a child’s experiences during the first five years. More than ever, Virginia’s policymakers and business and community leaders recognize the value of investing in school readiness. The data supports the need for strategies and programs that help children start school healthy and ready to learn. We know without a doubt that children who enter kindergarten prepared with basic skills and abilities have a far greater chance to succeed in school, work and life.
But where does school readiness begin? First and foremost, a child’s school readiness begins at home with a family or with other committed loving adults who have a positive relationship with the child. This environment must be supportive and acknowledge the responsibility of ensuring the child’s healthy development. Therefore, the process begins long before a child enters the schoolhouse doors. Who are the partners that can support these families? Early childhood development requires a wide community that includes families, health and child care providers, preschools, libraries, businesses, nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
A loving, committed and present adult can be a child’s most important teacher and an enduring influence. As very young children’s brains are built, establishing the foundation for all lifelong learning, child care providers — especially parents — are the architects and engineers of the child’s brain. In the first five years, a child’s brain undergoes dramatic growth and development as the synapses are stimulated by colors, shapes, light and sounds.
Caring and attentive interaction between a young child and a parent-figure builds on and expands nature’s basic foundation through a tender “serve and return” action. An infant naturally reaches out to the parent in some way, and adults respond attentively with words or gestures. This back and forth exchange, day after day, year after year, strengthens the very structure of the child’s brain. It affirms the child’s sense of worth and aids in the development of language skills and overall social development.
Language skills develop in the context of relationships through these interactions between young children and caring adults. In fact, everyday interactions offer rich opportunities for encouraging language and a love for reading. By age 3, children in homes with stimulating interaction and conversation have heard roughly 30 million more words than children who are not in a language-rich environment. For children who grow up in homes without this rich verbal interaction, the learning gap is profound and progressively widens so that, by third grade, a child may be far behind in reading.
Just as parents help to influence the development of the brain, they also have the privilege and responsibility to form partnerships with other adults and to access resources for a child’s healthy development through, for example, the selection of child care arrangements and active use of a local library. Families can always count on their local library as a welcoming resource that puts a world of books at their fingertips. Librarians will assist with selecting books and materials that are just right for the child’s age and development. Even the youngest child enjoys nestling with an adult and looking at picture books. Reading helps children discover and understand how the world works.
Since Smart Beginnings Start with Families is bookended by Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, it’s an ideal time to renew our collective commitment to support families with young children in their most important role. Together, we salute moms, dads and other family caregivers across the commonwealth in the community-based effort to provide children with a foundation for strong learning, leadership and reading in order to be successful in school, the workforce and life.
Christopher K. Peace represents the 97th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates and is a former member of the Library of Virginia Foundation Board; contact him at DelCPeace@house.virginia.gov.
Dr. Sandra Treadway is Librarian of Virginia; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, which sponsors Smart Beginnings initiatives in communities across the commonwealth to promote school readiness, has developed resources for this special campaign honoring parents and families. For information on Smart Beginnings Start with Families, visit www.smartbeginnings.org.