Days of Play-Doh, Matchbox cars, board books and Barbie dolls have been left in the dust at our house.
Lately, my kids are more absorbed with navigating iPads, writing English essays, working advanced algebra problems, planning social get-togethers, playing musical instruments or showering (lather, rinse, repeat) following athletic practices.
But not so long ago simpler activities filled their waking hours, and the labor-intensive years of infancy and toddlerhood are fresh in my mind, even as my recently licensed daughter (surprisingly!?) freely critiques my winter driving skills.
Interviewing Tara Thompson, coordinator of District 518′s Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) and School Readiness programs, for an article last week provided a rush of memories from my kids’ younger years. Then, participation in ECFE classes brought a welcome change of pace, for parent and child alike.
As recent transplants to Worthington with a six-month-old son, we found ECFE an ideal place to connect with other new moms and dads while our baby benefited from similarly aged playmates and explored a wealth of colorful toys.
As he and our local circle of friends grew, ECFE classes remained in our weekly routine. Hearing from experienced parent educators that a child’s stages and habits were within the realm of “normal” was reassuring, and realizing other parents didn’t exactly have “it” all figured out made less-than-perfect parenting moments easier to accept.
Whether celebrating a birthday, coping with the emotional fallout from a miscarriage, or seeking remedies for separation anxiety or sibling jealousy, having a sympathetic group of parents with whom one could talk–aided by a parent educator’s advice and input–made a positive difference.
And the little ones? I can still see their delighted faces as we entered the ECFE classroom. Their happy anticipation of playing with friends or exploring paints, hats, books and blocks was quickly converted into pursuing those important childhood tasks. I think my kids’ favorite part was grabbing my hand as they ventured into that wonderland of child’s play, knowing for a full half hour a parent was at their disposal, ready to follow them into whatever activity seemed most appealing.
When talking with Thompson about ECFE’s 40th anniversary, she affirmed the program was established with the intent of bringing children (ages 0 to 5) and parents together in just that way. The first third of a 90-minute ECFE session is devoted to parent/child interaction, in an environment filled with developmentally appropriate toys and activities for the children involved–and in a classroom where parents are free of distractions like jobs, household chores or their other children.
After a circle time for all, parents retreat to a separate space to discuss parenting issues with a licensed parent educator, while the kids stay and play under the supervision of a licensed early childhood educator.
I asked Thompson how it’s going for parents of 0- to five-year-olds these days, with the proliferation of cell phones, iPads, iPods and other portable electronic devices that were not in frequent use during my kids’ toddler and preschool years. She acknowledged new challenges have arisen; these days, a parent might be more inclined to scroll through a smartphone while pushing a two-year-old in a shopping cart than to talk to the child about the colors, grocery items and people they encounter.
“Conversing with your child and labeling things you see and do is of huge importance,” confirmed Thompson. She described “wake-up” calls some ECFE parents have shared: one mom discovered her young son assumed every trip in the van meant watching a certain video; another parent’s toddler could manipulate her cell phone as expertly (if not more so) than she could.
Thompson worries that, with the prevalence of the Internet and social media, more parents now think ECFE isn’t necessary for them, that they can get all the information and support they need online.
But, just as with kids, face time is critical for parents–and even Thompson, who holds degrees in early childhood development, said she benefited from attending ECFE classes with her daughters when they were little.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” wrote the great U.S. social reformer Frederick Douglass. That’s exactly the theory behind ECFE, and other 0 to 5 educational initiatives.
And really, what’s more important than giving kids a good start in life?