Build Friendship, Find Your Village

A cardboard box turned make believe boat fills Jesse Gandy’s living room. Books and educational toys line every shelf. A pet bullfrog croaks from a terrarium in the dining room. Gandy’s second grade daughter, Austin, recites the staples of a frog diet, and how they use even their eye muscles to swallow insects whole. But it’s Taj, Gandy’s three-year-old son, who lights up when he hears his mom talking about ReadySteps.

“My school!” he says. “I dress up in goggles, like a construction worker!” he blurts out with a mouth filled with animal crackers, pantomiming goggles on his eyes.

The Gandy family moved to Charlottesville from Texas two years ago to work for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). As a family with young kids, they found it hard to build a community as tight as what they had left in Texas. They needed a proverbial village to help them raise their children far away from family. Walking through the halls of the IRC, Gandy saw a poster for ReadySteps.

Now, every Monday and Friday morning at 10 a.m., Jesse and Taj walk the few blocks from their home to the community center at the Greenstone on Fifth housing development for their ReadySteps group. When they arrive, tables in the community center each have a different activity. There is a table of magna-tiles to support color identification and conceptual building skills. Another table filled with squishy moon sand gives kids a unique tactile experience. On the floor is a soft tile floor mat for infants to practice crawling.

A TYPICAL READYSTEPS GROUP

Taj Gandy with Mayra Reynolds, a ReadySteps teacher. Most of the other families walking in the door of the community center don’t look like the Gandy family, who is white. There is a woman in a colorful African Kente cloth dress carrying a baby on one hip and a toddler on the other. One petite woman walks in speaking in the quick clip of an Asian language. Her daughter gravitates to the moon sand table to roll out long snakes with her little toddler hands.

“I was glad it was a diverse group of people from all incomes,” said Gandy. “We’ve met a lot of neighbors, and we get together with those people outside of group for play dates. I built a community here far quicker by having ReadySteps right down the street.”

But, ReadySteps isn’t quite a school, as Taj describes. For one thing, it’s free to participants, which can’t be said about most preschools in Charlottesville. For another, parents stay with their kids the entire time. Also, there are five locations throughout Charlottesville, each set up for just a few hours per week and brought from place to place packed tightly into small cargo vans.

“We’re not a preschool, but we’re also not just a meet up or a social hour,” said Shannon Banks, ReadySteps Program Manager. “It’s community building. We’re this hybrid, like a free quasi-co-op preschool. It’s all built on trust and relationships. We have a full curriculum and routine so people can plug in at any location.”

EARLY EDUCATION IS CHANGING

Here’s a statistic that may surprise you. Since the year 2000 there has been a constant and steady rise of mothers exiting the workforce. For low and middle-income households, the reason is usually the same – the high cost of childcare. This year, in the state of Virginia, the average annual cost to send an infant to a year of day care was the same as the average annual cost to send a child to a year of college – around $10,867. For many families, it doesn’t make financial sense for both parents to go back to work during a child’s early years. Which leaves one parent at home – sometimes bored, lonely and on a tight budget.

ReadyKids noticed this trend. Local data showed an average of 225 children entering Charlottesville City and Albemarle County kindergartens were unprepared for school and in need of intervention services. The reason? Not enough kids were attending preschool.

For whatever reason, whether its economics or cultural dissonance, Kids Count data shows that half of 3 and 4-year-olds don’t attend preschool. That percentage has remained unchanged for over a decade. But exposure to other children and different sounds, sights and textures are crucial for little brains. The Center for Disease Control reports that 90% of a child’s brain physical volume develops as early as six years old.

The importance of the first years of a child’s life combined with the growing sense of isolation and loneliness in child-raising prompted ReadyKids to develop a new, innovative program. ReadySteps was born to encourage parents as a child’s first and best teacher through early learning playgroups within their home community.

The ReadySteps vans, filled with educational materials and early childhood toys, visit five neighborhoods around Charlottesville including Southwood, Greenstone on Fifth, Friendship Court, Park’s Edge Apartments and Greer Elementary School. ReadySteps rotates playgroups between these locations on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon.

COMMUNITY THROUGH FRIENDSHIP

An African-American Mother and Daughter playing a preschool color game. At the Friendship Court ReadySteps group, Renee Cooper can’t decide what’s the best part because “it’s all great.” She and her 4-year-old son Clayton started coming to ReadySteps groups five months ago after their doctor recommended it because Clayton had a speech delay.

“He loves it here,” said Cooper. “He’s grown a lot.”

Clayton, who is an only child, began making friends – something he had never done before.

“At first he would cry when he was around other people,” said Cooper. “Now he asks every day to come here.”

Cooper was proud to share that Clayton had gotten into Clark Elementary School’s 4-year-old preschool program and would start there in the fall, thanks to the help of ReadySteps staff who helped them apply and figure out enrollment forms.

Each ReadySteps group is staffed with two professional early childhood educators, a family coordinator and evidence-based early education materials. But, in talking to ReadySteps participants, it’s not the educational components that they value. It’s the other parents.

“The relationships that are formed through the ReadySteps playgroups are the foundation of the community we build,” said Margot Pleasants, a ReadySteps Group Leader. “These relationships are the backbone of any community, and facilitating them is the reason ReadySteps exists.”

A NEED ACROSS ALL INCOMES

Back at the Gandy home, Taj Gandy wrinkles his nose deep in thought, and details everything a construction worker wears.
“Glasses … a vest … a helmet,” he says, pointing to different parts of his body.

“In the last six months, I’ve seen his language explode,” said Gandy. “He’s learning how to express himself with other kids and share toys, even if there is a language barrier.”

Gandy says she tells everyone she meets about the ReadySteps groups.

“There really is a need across all incomes for the aspects ReadySteps provides, whether it’s networking with other moms, getting ready for school or just getting out of the house. There’s nothing else like this,” said Gandy.

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One simple shift that can improve your child's mental health this summer
Adapted from a presentation given by Matt Bukowski, MA LPC.

One of the parts of parenting no one quite prepares you for is the sheer number of worries. Are they eating enough? Is the car seat strap positioned correctly? Do we live in a good school district? For parents raising kids today, there is an added worry that previous generations never had to face – are they spending too much time on their phones?

The worries are real and warranted. In the case of smart phone use, more and more studies are linking increased screen time in kids and teens to increases in major depressive episodes and psychological distress. So much so that in 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released screen time recommendations for all children.

The APA recommends that children under 2 should almost never have screen time, and children between 2 and 5 should have less than an hour per day. Beyond school age, the APA recommends to “place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.”

It’s all a bit overwhelming for parents who just need to get their families through the day. For many, screen time is the carrot that gets kids and parents to complete basic daily tasks. Parents can get the laundry put away, or schedule a doctor’s appointment, or make dinner without interruption by propping their child in front of their favorite show or with the promise of some time on Fortnite. It’s easy. It’s accessible. But, at what cost?

Famous Low-Tech Parents

APA Screen Time Recommendations
Look no further than the tech giants themselves. Most of the people who created the screens our children spend hours looking into, don’t allow their children unlimited access to phones and tablets. Steve Jobs and Bill and Melinda Gates were low-tech parents. They limited screen time. They realized, perhaps before anyone else did, that consumer tech was addictive and possibly harmful to young brains. This is the very thing research is now proving.

Being low tech may be great for Jobs and Gates, who can afford housekeepers and nannies, but it doesn’t help the average modern parent’s dilemma of how to get the laundry done without a toddler meltdown. Or make that phone call? Or boil some water for spaghetti? What do those of us who don’t have extra help on hand do?

Switch it up for better mental health

There’s actually a cheap and easy solution, but it might be a hard sell for the kid who loves Minecraft. Research about child brain development points toward what our grandparents knew to be true – send kids outside. Sit on the front porch and make that phone call while they play hopscotch. Open the window and watch them in the backyard while you fold the laundry. Or, if you live in an area without easy access to green space, take a daily walk before bedtime, get the family some free bikes to ride to a park, or sign your kids up for free swim lessons.

Humans are meant to be outside. Green space, the fractal patterns of nature and the sounds of the wind in the trees have the opposite effect on the brain that screens do. While video games and social media give brains increasingly exciting rewards, nature calms a growing brain. And what do parents want more than calm?

In the short term, changing behaviors and family patterns away from the easy solutions of technology and toward more nature-based and lower-tech play may cause complaining. But, kids are adaptable. After they realize you are not changing your screen time limits, they will find a way to deal.

In the long term, the greater benefit is that your child’s brain develops with healthier adaptations. Instead of seeking greater and greater rewards, they will learn the skills of empathy, creativity and imagination that no computer or artificial intelligence in the future will be able to replace.

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Pinwheels for Prevention. Protecting Kids: It's Everyone's Job
National Child Abuse Prevention Month recognizes the importance of families and communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect. At ReadyKids, we know that no one becomes a parent with the intent of abusing or neglecting children. Opportunity gaps, trauma and social factors like addiction and mental illness add stress to the already stressful job of parenting.

Nevertheless, in 2018 within the ReadyKids service area there were 4,005 accepted claims of child abuse. Child abuse is a community-wide issue that can only be solved as a community. Therefore, we planted pinwheel gardens during the month of April. The gardens raise awareness of what causes and how to prevent child abuse.

Pinwheel Gardens for Prevention

The pinwheel is a symbol of child abuse awareness for its whimsy and childhood associations. In other words, it is a nationally recognized symbol of the great childhoods we want for all children. At ReadyKids, we work closely with not only kids but parents, caregivers, police and other service providers. Our goal is to create great childhoods by promoting social and emotional well-being.

Girl Blowing Pinwheel In addition, each pinwheel garden has copies of the ReadyKids “Keeping Your Family Strong” pamphlet. These pamphlets educate and support families. Research shows that “protective factors” like having a strong support system and knowing about child development help parents stay more calm in moments of high stress. For instance, a parent that knows that part of two-year-old development is learning to communicate and assert themselves is less likely to erupt when the child screams “no diaper change!” Above all, anything a family can do to build up protective factors will help to prevent child abuse.

ReadyKids placed pinwheel gardens in eleven neighborhoods of Charlottesville. You can find them in the following locations:
SARA
Women’s Initiative
Foothills Child Advocacy Center
Region 10
Albemarle Victim Witness Office
Southwood Mobile Home Park
Greer Elementary School
Agnor Hurt Elementary School
Friendship Court Apartments
Apartments at Greenstone on 5th
Park’s Edge Apartments

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Toddler Rule #1: Dump Everything, picture of child dumping sand from a bucket

First Baptist Preschool has been a steady presence in the Charlottesville early childhood scene for decades.  Their early childhood educators have an average of ten years of experience working with children.  They were one of the first preschools to join the Virginia Quality Initiative in 2008, when it was a pilot program.  Still, every fall, before their students come back to school, they set up a training with the Growing Minds program at ReadyKids.

“I think if you don’t have trainings you get a little stale,” said Ann Easton, Director of First Baptist.

But this time, Easton put out a challenge to the Growing Minds trainer, Stephanie Massie.  Prior to her role at ReadyKids, Massie had been both a childcare center director and a preschool teacher.  Easton felt confident she could handle a challenge.

“I don’t want it to be boring,” Easton said. “I want shock value.  I want wow factor.”

Massie thought about that for a while.  How do you add shock value and wow factor to a training on developmentally appropriate curriculum? It seemed an impossible task.

Then, she remembered something she had heard from Eddie Harris, the Fatherhood Specialist at REAL Dads, another ReadyKids program.

“Stop being a resource.  The answers are in the room already.”

Instead of lecturing on child development, Massie decided to capitalize on the strengths of these already experienced teachers.  She started her session with two questions.

The first, “What do you want to see from the kids you teach?”

And the second, “What do you NOT want to see from the kids you teach?”

The answers were predictable.  The teachers wanted to see listening, engagement and wonder.  They didn’t want to see toy dumping, tattling or defiance.

Kids Do Well if They Can

Massie handed them the “Milestones of Child Development” book, a standardized tool for Virginia early childhood educators to help align a child’s developmental needs with what they’re being taught in preschool.  After they looked over the book, Massie showed a video by Ross Greene, a child psychologist, who says, “Kids do well if they can.”

“’Kids do well if they can’ is only a life shattering philosophy if you consider the more prevalent philosophy, ‘Kids do well if they wanna,’” said Ross Greene.  “But consider this, ‘Why would a kid not want to do well?’”

Massie turned to the two-year-old teachers, a notoriously difficult age to teach, and said, “So, what can a two-year-old child do well right now?”

The teachers turned to the section for physical development of children 18-months to 36-months and found this sentence, “fill a container with small objects and dump them out repeatedly.”

Legos scattered on a hard wood floor

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

The teachers looked up a bit sheepishly.  Dumping toys, a behavior they didn’t want to see in kids, was exactly what two-year-olds can do well.

“We found that’s something that child must need,” said Easton.  “Just think about all the feedback [a child] gets if he dumps a box of Legos on a tile floor.”

Massie then stood up in front of the group, lifted a big container of balls above her head and flipped it over – dumping the balls and sending them bouncing around the classroom.

“You could see the discomfort immediately,” said Massie.  “I invited them to try dumping things themselves.”

Each teacher practiced dumping their own bucket of toys and reflecting on what the satisfaction was – hearing the sounds the toys made when they hit the ground, the physical input of going from heavy to light, and the feeling of success after persistence. Then, as a group, they talked about what annoyed them about dumping toys as adults, and how to remedy the situation.

“If the noise is what bothers you,” said Easton, “let’s think of ways you can give [a child] a way to dump without the noise.”

Focusing on Strengths

Children lift sticks in the air as teacher plays guitar.After that, Massie felt like the teachers gave their own training.  They began looking up each of the “bad” behaviors in the Child Development book.  Tattling.  Preschoolers are learning to “demonstrate progress in expressing needs and opinions by using words and asking for help when needed.” Defiance. Preschoolers are learning to “demonstrate the ability to initiate activities.”

“I could physically see the dots connecting above their heads,” said Massie. “I was in a zone with stars in my eyes.  It was in that moment I realized that I got the wow factor.”

Massie had been giving trainings for years, trying to emphasize that usually ‘bad’ behaviors are ‘developmental’ behaviors.  But the wisdom to stop being a resource and let the people in the room find the answers themselves changed the conversation.

“Allowing us to come up with different ways of handling things in the classroom always makes an impact,” said Easton. “We just love working with ReadyKids.”

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Our ReadySteps program encourages parents as a child’s first and best teacher through early learning playgroups within five communities around Charlottesville.  If there is one thing ReadySteps staff have learned in the process, it’s what kids like to play with.

This list contains seven toys that can be bought or made for less than $10, but still have huge educational opportunity.  Five of them can be bought from local Charlottesville businesses or from Amazon Smile, where a percentage of your proceeds will come back to ReadyKids! The last two can be made at home with free or easy-to-find materials!

Everyone at ReadyKids is so grateful to be a part of this community.  We wish you and yours a happy holiday season!

Five Gifts Under $10 Preschoolers will LOVE:

1. Play Food

The benefits of toy food for child development have been enumerated.  Not only does playing with toy food help kids differentiate colors and shapes, it can also teach responsibility and healthy habits.  Engaging in your child’s pretend play also builds your child’s language and social skills.  A social skill is anything that creates interaction and communication between people where social rules are communicated in verbal and nonverbal ways.  “Oh, what’s this you’ve brought me?  A tomato and an eggplant?  That looks delicious! Thank you!”  In those four sentences you’ve taught your child two new words (tomato and eggplant), manners (Thank you!) and how to interact with others.

 

2. Stickers

Every kid should play with stickers.  It helps to develop the pincer grasp (think of the fingers you use to “pinch,” that’s the pincer grasp), which will be useful for learning how to hold a pencil and write. Plus, the possibilities are endless with stickers – you can buy any color or character sticker to match your child’s interests.

3. Stacking & Sorting Toys

Sorting and stacking toys help young children to begin to understand math concepts, develop motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and creative thinking. And, they are so much fun!

 

4. Hopper Balls

Balls are a versatile gift that no matter what the age of the child, and can be used to develop gross motor skills.  Gross motor skills are larger movements your child makes with his arms, legs, feet, or his entire body – like crawling, running, and jumping.  Hopper balls are always a hit at ReadySteps playgroups.

5.  Tempera Sticks 

While regular paint may strike fear into the heart of any parent who desires a clean house, tempera sticks are all of the fun of painting without any brushes to clean.  Plus, they’re a unique way for little hands to develop fine motor and pre-writing skills.  Fine motor skills involve smaller movements that occur in the wrists, hands, fingers, feet and toes.

Two Homemade Gifts That Provide Hours of Entertainment:

 

1. Puffy paint 

ReadySteps makes this fun, textured paint to use during play groups.  You can make it at home too with equal parts shaving cream and glue. Add a few drops of food coloring and mix together with a paintbrush for colorful 3D art!

 

2. A Sensory Bin

In the first three years of life, kids learn less from what you say to them and more from what they experience through their senses (scent, touch, taste, sight, and hearing).  One easy way to provide a lot of sensory experiences in a short period of time is to create a sensory bin.  Find a large plastic box and fill it with materials that are interesting for a kid to touch.  There are so many options!  Rice, puff balls, beans, seeds, dried pasta, sand, rocks.  Let the kids have fun scooping, pouring, and raking!

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We’re smiling bashfully from ear to ear.  We’ve gotten a lot of positive attention lately!  Everyone at ReadyKids is passionate about the work they do, and we’re so glad our work contributes positively to our community.

Last week, our Executive Director, Jacki Bryant, was interviewed for the CBS19 Community Counts Segment.  This week, ReadyKids’ hard working teams of InsideOut, ReadySteps, and Child Care Quality were featured on the local Charlottesville news last night in two separate stories.

InsideOut Receives Heal Charlottesville and Concert for Charlottesville Funds

We are proud to announce publicly that we are one of the proud recipients of donations from the Concert for Charlottesville and the Heal Charlottesville Fund of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.  This summer, partly due to the trauma of the Aug. 12 rally, our wait list for trauma counseling climbed to over 54 kids.  These funds from CACF will go towards hiring an additional trauma counselor to meet the needs of our city’s youth.

Click on the photos to be led to the CBS19 video with Shannon Noe, the program manager for our counseling programs.

 

ReadySteps and Child Care Quality Featured in Reporting on Affordable Childcare

As the cost of child care in Charlottesville rises, more parents are forced to chose between affordability and quality. ReadyKids wants to make sure that this decision is less painful for parents.  Whether you choose to opt out of the workforce and stay home with your children while they’re little or you go back to work but feel nervous about child care options – there is a ReadyKids program for you.
For those at home with kids, ReadyKids ReadySteps program brings regular early learning playgroups to children and their caregivers in their home communities.  ReadySteps teaches parents how to be their child’s first teacher, helps families connect with other families in the community, and helps families gain access to a support system that grows with their child.  They currently meet in five different Charlottesville neighborhoods including Agnor Hurt, Friendship Court, Greenstone on 5th, Southwood, and Westhaven.
For parents working outside of the home, ReadyKids Child Care Quality program improves the quality of early child-care and preschool settings by offering coaching, training and support to early childhood teachers and directors.  If you are in need of resources to find affordable, quality child care in Charlottesville, check out this list of resources compiled by the Child Care Quality team.
Click on the picture of Shannon Banks, ReadySteps Program Manager, or Gail Esterman, Child Care Quality Program Manager, to be linked to the CBS19 story on the riding cost of childcare in Charlottesville.

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The ReadySteps program would love to add the following books to their collection to use during our early learning playgroups.  Used copies are welcome!  If you have one of these books to share, please contact Shannon Banks, sbanks@readykidscville.com

 

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“When I first got pregnant, I was alone. I was completely alone. I didn’t have anybody to turn to. My family’s in New York, so I didn’t know what to do at the time. Through all that, ReadyKids was with me and helped me through that transition. And that helped him and helped us get on the same page to be the little family that we are today. So, really, everything has gone a whole 360 in nine months, which is kind of crazy thinking back at it now.”

“Through everything, ReadyKids was with me!”

– Audrey, Healthy Families Participant.

Did you know that the CDC estimates up to 20% of new moms suffer from postpartum depression?
Our Healthy Families program works closely with expecting and new moms to bring them the support they need in those early years.

We love nothing more than visiting chubby babies like little Charlotte. In fact, it’s what we do! Healthy Families is all about helping pregnant moms and parents of young kids develop healthy family relationships and a safe, enriching home environment. Our Family Support Workers are there to accompany moms like Audrey from before their babies are born, until their little ones head off to Kindergarten.

When Audrey learned she was pregnant, she wasn’t sure she could provide the stable environment her baby would need. Today, at over a year old, her baby is healthy and happy with a strong, stable environment. She’s developmentally right on target (not to mention adorable!)

We work with moms as they transition to motherhood, help them over hurdles, and accompany them through some of life’s most important milestones.

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PEERWe bet you (or someone you know) spends a lot of time reading to little ones. But are you getting the most out of those shared moments? Do you ask your child questions? Prompt a response? Repeat your words? If you’ve answered yes to any of those questions, then you’re already halfway there!

Dialogic reading is an evidence-based system, currently being piloted by our Play Partners program, which brings kids deeper into the learning experience. According to the US Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, dialogic reading interventions have positive effects on oral language. Through this method, children are prompted to contribute to their own learning process, to become the storyteller. It’s all about engaging and interacting–and it works! So, next time you read to your preschooler, why not try out the PEER sequence yourself?

1. Prompt your child to say something about the book,
2. Evaluate your child’s response,
3. Expand your child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it, and
4. Repeat the prompt to make sure your child has learned from the expansion!

Already an expert at reading to little ones? Click here to get involved in our Play Partners program.

 

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