WHEATLAND – “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines.” “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.” “I think I’ll move to Australia.” “I’m so rumbly in my tumbly.” “I do not like green eggs and ham.”
A sentence of a children’s book has the ability to conjure an instant response in kids and adults alike. Not usually the same, but significant. Memories of the story itself, being read to by a loved grown-up or the proud moment a child is able to read a beloved book on their own. But too often children grow discouraged when learning to read when they are not able to grasp the concepts as quickly as their peers. Feelings of frustration and inadequacy are instant roadblocks that can sometimes cause a bright learner to veer off course, sometimes permanently. But there is a way to prevent this from happening and it’s simple – read to them from infancy.
Studies have shown that a child’s brain is 85% developed by three-years-old and 95% by five. Babies who don’t hear more than one language in their first year begin to lose the ability to hear all the different sounds of foreign languages and most will never sound like a native speaker after that first year. Reading is similar. The words in stories and books are different than the day-to-day words used in a home. How often do you hear, “Llama Llama Red Pajama,” in a day? But hearing those silly, rhyming words as an infant or toddler makes them able to recognize them down the road. Add the rich language of all the marvelous children’s books available these days and those kids that have been read to will have heard more than 30 million words when they start learning to read themselves at school. A distinct advantage over those kids who missed out on regular story-time.
Australian children’s author and college professor, Mem Fox, has said, “If every parent understood the huge educational benefits and intense happiness brought about by reading aloud to their children, and if every parent- and every adult caring for a child-read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in our lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation.”
It’s the kindergarten teachers who see the difference and the struggles. Children coming to school for the first time eager and excited to learn lose their enthusiasm when it’s so much harder for them than the other students. When Libby Elementary teacher Susan Bednasek retired from teaching, she decided something needed to be done about it. In 2012, she along with additional dedicated literary advocates, started the Platte County Early Literacy Project. The goal? Getting books in the homes and hands of every child in Platte County – before they start school. The problem? Funding. Bednasek has scoured resources from every angle. State, federal, local businesses, consistency was the problem.
“When we began there wasn’t any funding. Wyoming Kids First was the first one that helped me get it off the ground. Then there was no money, begging for money, little bit of money, cut off, never consistent,” Bednasek explained with frustration. “How can I reach every baby born in Platte County or living in Platte County up to age 3, make a relationship with the families and teach the vital importance of reading to babies and the huge impact it makes?”
Thanks to a mil levy through the County Commissioners joined with the Southeast Early Childhood BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) the group was able to fully implement the program with the goal of serving 100% of babies born in the county in order to guarantee their readiness for school.
Banner Health got on board to help and provided the opportunity to teach the importance of reading to expectant parents. Newborns and their families receive a free gift basket that contains books, toys and a free frozen dinner. The family is then signed up for home visits that happen at 6 months, 1, 2 and 3-years-old. They receive a book, a STEAM toy and literature that explains where their baby should be at development-wise and what parents can do to keep them on-track.
Platte County Library started the, “Book and Bite,” programs to further the group’s cause. Roughly once a month, before Covid anyway, the library hosts an event that gives away free food and books to every family in attendance. Offering picture books for the younger set and chapter books for older readers.
The program has been going long enough that soon they should be able to collect data from incoming kindergartners to rate the success of more kids being introduced early to books.
Bednasek attributes the progress and achievement of the program to the community support it has received through the years from businesses and individuals.
“Dan Brecht has been huge in making sure the program keeps going and Darla Patterson has been really instrumental in getting things delivered at the hospital,” said Bednasek with a voice full of gratitude. “Red Dandelion (creative design and print studio) has done a lot of things for me and the Library has always supported me. So many people have pitched in to help.”
South Street Pharmacy got involved and agreed to let the organization paint a mural on the west side of their building promoting reading. Molly Read, artist and librarian, noticed a father reading to his children in the library and asked if she could paint them and he agreed.
It can sometimes be difficult to slow down a toddler long enough to listen to a book. Right before bed is a prime time when they are already tired but any chance to prolong having to actually go to sleep is a welcome activity. Books are also useful to have when waiting for food at a restaurant or waiting in line somewhere, a better option than just giving them a screen. Even a snuggle with a grandparent can be turned into an enjoyable learning moment. Bringing a story to life by acting it out can aid in comprehension.
About 200 families are enrolled in the program and 58 babies were born in Platte County last year. The Early Literacy Program was created right here in Platte County and is trailblazing for the state in having more children ready for learning and reading when they take that first step into their first classroom.
The program continues to grow thanks mostly to the tenacity and passion of Bednasek.
“I find parents to be very grateful for the program. It’s always a thrill to witness a child receiving a new book and a toy but the biggest reward is watching parents realize the huge benefit of reading aloud that gives me the most satisfaction. It’s my dream to have every child in Platte County School District #1 benefit from this program. “
Anyone interested in signing up for the program or to get involved should text Bednasek at (307) 322-6273 or stop by the Library or School District.