Some of the 3- and 4-year-olds at New London-Spicer's preschool screening couldn't wait to tear into their new blue backpacks and pull out crayons, paintboxes and books.
It's the reaction that members of the United Way of Kandiyohi County's new Empower initiative were hoping for when they invested this year in more than 700 of the packs -- enough for every pre-kindergarten child in Kandiyohi County.
By putting early childhood education materials into the hands of young families, Empower hopes to increase children's readiness to learn when they enter kindergarten next year.
"We're giving these to every child this year that goes through preschool screening in the county," said Karen Hilding, co-chairperson of Empower. "Preschool screening was just a good way to catch a lot of those children."
Half of kindergarten-age children in Kandiyohi County lack adequate preparation for the classroom. Many of them will fall even farther behind as they progress through elementary school and high school.
A local survey this past year found that the gap is widening between youngsters who are well-prepared and those who aren't, Hilding said.
"You've got some kids who have a lot of experience. Then there are some who don't even know their colors. Teachers are having to handle that whole spectrum," she said.
The preschool backpacks are one way of trying to narrow the gap, she said.
They contain scissors, crayons, paint and glue sticks to help children increase their fine motor skills and learn basic shapes, letters and colors. There's a blank notebook that invites children to be creative.
Kids also get a book, a growth chart and a toothbrush. And for their parents, there's a folder full of information about family and early childhood resources.
By next spring, Empower will have handed out hundreds of the packs at preschool screenings in the Willmar, New London-Spicer and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City school districts.
"They are so excited," said Peggy Dykema, a school nurse at New London-Spicer. "It's something they can actually use when they go home."
About 70 children attended the preschool screening Wednesday for New London-Spicer.
Not only did they leave with a new backpack, but they also underwent an assessment on basics such as vision, hearing, growth and development, and whether they're up to date on their immunizations.
"It's very necessary. It helps identify problems well before school," Dykema said. "It's also a way for the parents to make a connection with the school. It's kind of a milestone. They like to see how their kids are doing."
If a child is identified as needing extra help, families can be referred to resources such as Head Start or speech therapy, so that issues can be tackled months in advance of kindergarten enrollment.
The early years are increasingly seen as critical in shaping a child's learning and emotional development, Dykema said.
"We know so much more about how the brain develops," she said. "We know you have to start at an early age," she said.
Empower, a women's philanthropy initiative that is part of the United Way of Kandiyohi County, plans to leverage numerous resources as it reaches out to young families and agencies that work with them, Hilding said.
For the preschool backpacks, Empower raised most of the funds but also had help from the Kandiyohi County Early Childhood Coalition and Affiliated Community Medical Centers, who together donated more than 700 books.
Since its establishment a year ago, the initiative has grown to 90 members and an endowment of $100,000.
In a pilot project launched this past summer, a traveling preschool visited two mobile home parks in Willmar with early childhood learning and games. The project, known as the Growmobile, is being expanded year round this coming year.
Hilding said Empower also will announce its first round of grants next month for community projects that focus on young children and kindergarten readiness.