Why did an estimated 27 percent of Minnesota’s five-year-old children enter kindergarten unprepared? I tend to focus on that number, but that also means that 73 percent of our kids did enter kindergarten ready to learn. Since I began working here in 1991, that number has been about the same: roughly one-quarter of the children entering kindergarten are not ready for the experience of school.

For several years I’ve been a partner of Read Aloud.org, an organization that encourages parents to read to their children: “Every child. Every parent. Every day.” Their Read Aloud Toolkit gives a lot of information about this subject, and I’ve borrowed a lot of that information for this essay. According to Readaloud.org, the single most important thing we can do to help our children learn and develop is reading aloud to them. Children are born with about 100 billion neurons in their brains. By age three there will be about 1,000 trillion connections between them. Reading, talking and singing to children builds these connections.

At Litchfield Library, we have discussed trying the 1,000 Books before Kindergarten program, which involves record keeping and prizes. I’ll leave that for my successor to implement. Someday. For now, I encourage families to read 15 minutes each day, just as regular as tooth brushing is in most families. According to the Read Aloud Tool Kit, “only 48 percent of children in this country are read to each day.”

If you read just 15 minutes a day to your child, for five years, that adds up to 27,375 minutes. I can easily read a picture book in 15 minutes, even with talking and asking questions about the book. That number of minutes would equal 1,825 books. That’s a lot of books!

That leads me to another point. Reading isn’t passive. To draw your child into the story, ask questions. If a book is about fall, ask, “what colors do you see?” and “why do some trees lose leaves and others don’t?” If you’re outside, even without a book, look up at the clouds. Ask, “what’s in the sky?” or “what does that cloud look like to you?” “What kind of cloud is that?” Or from Oct. 1 on, “is that a snow cloud?”

A final point: It’s so important to talk, read, and sing to small children. In 1995 a book was published about an important study of how much parents interact with their children. The title is “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” by Betty Hart Ph.D and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D. It is available through mnlink.org and amazon.com. A newer study by Jill Gilkerson, Ph.D and Jeffrey A. Richard, MA is found in their book, “The Power of Talk: The Impact of Adult Talk, Conversational Turns, and TV during the Critical 0-4 years of Child Development.” This was published in 2009, but I haven’t found a copy of it, although articles by Jill Gilkerson, Ph.D are available through mnlink.org. Both studies showed that the number of words young children are exposed to has a direct impact on school and life success.

I had a delightful time interacting with a 15-month old child who is just starting to talk. She climbed on a couch, and we quickly made up a game of pretending she was asleep and waking up. So fun. So important. See you at the library!

— Jan Pease is children’s librarian at Litchfield Public Library.

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