'Milestone boxes' offer tools for parents in Kandiyohi and Renville counties to engage with young children
With grant funds from PACT for Families, public health staff for Kandiyohi and Renville counties piloted a program to help families engage with their young children and introduce babies to emotional, math and literacy concepts by providing "milestone boxes." Each age-appropriate box includes small toys, a book and activities parents can do with their children.
WILLMAR — From day one, a baby is learning by observing the world around them.
Their first teachers are their family, so it is vitally important that the adults in a baby's life work to engage the child by talking to them, reading to them and just including them in everyday life.
In an effort to help with that, public health staff in Kandiyohi and Renville counties established a pilot program to bring age-appropriate activities into the homes of mostly low-income families.
The program offers "milestone boxes" that focus on children when they are 6, 12 and 18 months old. Each age-appropriate box includes small toys, a book and activities parents can do with their children.
The boxes are part of the counties' family home visits program, which brings a public health nurse into the homes of new parents to help them navigate the first two years of parenthood.
"We use them as talking tools, getting the parents to interact with their children," said Katie Slagter, Renville County Family Health supervisor. "It is really important to do that with their kids."
The boxes are part of the Talking is Teaching curriculum that was adopted by the five county area of PACT for Families in 2018 . The early learning campaign is part of the Too Small to Fail organization through the Clinton Foundation.
Kandiyohi and Renville counties started the boxes as a pilot program and received a grant from PACT to start the program and purchase the items for 75 milestone boxes. The boxes are a new way to reach children during their earliest months.
Each box covers a different area of development. The 6-month box is about emotional and social development. It includes items such as a hand puppet, rattle and mirror.
"There are many things a child can learn by just looking at themselves in the mirror," Slagter said.
The 12-month box is all about introducing babies to early math concepts, such as big and little and early counting. A couple of animal toys can show a child the difference between a big item and a small one, while three soft pom poms can be a great way to introduce numbers.
The 18-month box introduces literacy concepts and allows a child to get their hands dirty with fun items such as children's modeling clay and crayons.
"Making messes are a big learning process for a child. So much can be learned from making a mess," Slagter said.
The boxes are also a way for parents to learn about different development milestones and see if their child is reaching those moments. If there is a chance a baby might be delayed in their development or have a learning issue, it is much better to catch it early, before a child enters school.
"Those first three years of life are very, very key," Slagter said.
The two counties have been giving out the boxes during the home visits for over a year and will continue to do. There is also a plan to begin rolling out the program in Meeker, McLeod and Yellow Medicine counties, the other three PACT counties.
"We are in the process of getting more activities and supplies for the other counties," Slagter said.
While it is difficult to quantify any successes from the boxes, Slagter believes the families have been receptive of them. The parents are given some assistance in learning to engage with their babies and the youngsters are given a helping hand to be better prepared for school.
Slagter also hopes families learn that even if they don't have the money to buy expensive, electronic learning toys for their children, they can still help them succeed.
"We are trying to get parents talking to their children, engage with them," Slagter said. "You don't need the really expensive toys. You can use the measuring cups from your kitchen drawers, a pot and pan and spoon."