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Early childhood development initiative launches in Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties

Erica Dischino / Tribune Sparky reads a book to children during the Rice Park grand opening Wednesday in Willmar. A new Talking is Teaching early childhood education and development initiative for children in the region was introduced during the event. 1 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Nancy Hafner of Willmar Public Schools early learning programs hands out popsicles to children Wednesday during the Rice Park grand opening in Willmar to promote the new Talking is Teaching early childhood education and development initiative in the region. 2 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Materials explaining the new Talking is Teaching early childhood education and development were available last week at the Rice Park grand opening in Willmar.3 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune A sign prompting park visitors to talk about the rain was installed in Rice Park in Willmar as a part of the Talking is Teaching early childhood education and development initiative. 4 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Nancy Hafner, of Willmar Public Schools early learning programs, left, and Stefanie Leuze, of Kandiyohi County Public Health, speak Wednesday about the Talking is Teaching initiative launching in the region. They spoke during the Rice Park grand opening in Willmar about the early childhood education and development campaign.5 / 5

WILLMAR — Every moment in a young child's life can be a teaching moment. Whether it is a trip to the grocery store, playing on a playground or reading at home, there are times that can be used to further a child's literacy, social and emotional education.

"Those small moments are big," said Nancy Hafner, a community engagement specialist with Willmar Public Schools who is facilitating a regional project for early childhood education and development. "Parents should engage everyday opportunities to talk, read and sing to their children."

To assist families in making those all-important connections, the five counties served by PACT for Families Collaborative have kicked off a new early childhood learning campaign called Talking is Teaching. Part of the national Too Small to Fail initiative, the main goal of Talking is Teaching is to help parents and caregivers to talk, sing and read to their children — research shows these activities help grow a child's vocabulary, along with their social and emotional well-being.

"The whole goal of the campaign is building these relationships between parents and children," Hafner said.

Willmar and the surrounding areas are only the second Talking is Teaching campaign in Minnesota and the first rural community in the country, according to the national campaign's website. Other cities which have started programs include Minneapolis; New York City; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

"It is very exciting," Hafner said.

Startup funding for the program came from PACT for Families Collaborative and Blue Cross Blue Shield. PACT granted $40,000 to start the program in Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties. Willmar on its own received an additional $20,000 from Blue Cross Blue Shield.

"The rural community has pooled together its resources to make this happen," Hafner said.

The money will be used to install at least two Talking is Teaching signs in each community as well as smaller signs for community businesses and organizations, and create kits for new families. The kits will include two board books, a sippy cup and information.

"Everybody that hears about it is excited about it," Hafner said.

The signs are bright and cheerful, with conversations prompts. For example, the sign installed at Rice Park says "Let's talk about rain," while a sign at Walt's is about cars.

"Sometimes parents don't know what to say to a baby," Hafner said. "These are prompts to help them."

Some of the information is available in both English and Spanish, in an effort to spread the program to as many families as possible.

"Being bilingual is a great benefit for them," Hafner said of children in homes where more than one language is spoken.

Research has shown a great amount of brain development takes place during the first few years of life, making it even more important for parents to interact with their children.

Doing things like talking to a baby about everyday things, reading a book or singing a song during bath time can help close the word gap found between high- and low-income children.

The more vocabulary a child has, the better prepared they will be for school.

"We know if children's language skills are built early, it can benefit their reading," Hafner said. "We need to catch them early. The more words a child hears the greater their language development."

Children with positive and strong relationships with their parents and/or caregivers are also shown to have better physical, mental and emotional health.

More information on Talking is Teaching can be found on the national website, talkingisteaching.org.

The West Central MN Talking is Teaching Facebook page also has additional information and will list upcoming events, Hafner said.

"We need to keep getting the word out," Hafner said.