Early learning, early education and early reading are terms used to describe programs that help young children learn before kindergarten. Early learning can be done at home, in scholastic settings or in the community.

Skills development

According to experts, the youngest children can start meaningful learning opportunities that include developing skills, a sense of self and a foundation for learning throughout life.

At the Liberty school district’s Early Childhood Center on Northeast 79th Street in Kansas City, Principal Sarah Birk and Assistant Principal Bart Tittle said their youngest charges are engaged in developing many of these skills.

Birk said “learning dispositions” are traits like courage and curiosity, trust and playfulness, confidence and responsibility, expressing an interest, being involved, persisting with difficulty, appreciating a challenge and finding self-expression and a point of view that the youngest learners can start developing.

“These are skills that translate from the earliest learner to becoming a lifelong learner,” Birk said. “It’s starting those steps to independence and even if something is hard, to keep trying. It’s about exploring materials and interacting. It’s looking and listening.”

Learning at home

Birk and Tittle also manage the Parents as Teachers program, which spurs parents as a child’s first teachers.

“The program is often that first support for parents,” she said. “There are those songs and blocks and exploring the environment around them that helps shape a learner.”

For those looking for tools to get kids ready for an early education setting, Birk suggests board games such as Candyland.

“Again, there are steps to play, learning how to take turns and sometimes losing,” she said. “As parents, we try to shield our kids from experiencing these, but if we can help them in a safe way, they can learn the ways to navigate this life.”

Simple questions about the day can help shape early learners, the experts said.

“They can learn how to put up a jacket or put on a backpack while at home,” Birk said. “Again, it’s some of these everyday experiences that are critical. Going grocery shopping can include giving the kids a pencil and paper. They can follow along and make their own list. Look for letters or play Eye Spy.”

Tittle said these actions can be helpful as the youngest learners can see a connection to the real world.

“It energizes a new learner if they can see these skills are important,” he said. “It empowers them.”

Birk said in the contemporary world, everyone has information at their fingertips.

“We can start those early learners with the beginning of how to apply it and make connections,” she said. “They can learn what is true and what is false.”

Reading is key

Katie McDonald, Mid-Continent Public Library System’s youth services department manager, said reading is critical for early learners.

“It might not be reading full books by the time they head to an early education classroom, but they know how to engage in a story,” she said. “They are talking about books, narrating their own days, role playing characters, talking about the characters’ feelings.”

With COVID-19, the library system has closed its doors temporarily, but books can still be requested, McDonald said. In addition, library patrons can call in and hear a story.

“Remember, kids learn through repetition,” she said. “Reading that favorite book over and over again is good. Taking time for a read aloud is a chance for a child to learn new ideas and concepts in safe and comfortable environment.”

The library system is hoping to add more books that provide representation for the many children in the metropolitan area.McDonald said 20 minutes of quality, reading time is a must.

“It doesn’t have to be 20 minutes all at once,” she said. “If kids don’t want to be read to at that moment, remember, as a parent, you have to model that behavior. Parents need to be reading in front of their kids.”

Before heading to school

Another tip Birk offers is to have a picture of the teacher and school handy before the child heads into his or her first school building.

“Chat and map out what a day might look like,” she said. “The greatest thing that a parent can do is keep our own anxiety hidden from our children. They pick up on those cues. Put all of this in a positive light.”

Southeast Editor Kellie Houx can be reached at kellie.houx@mycouriertribune.com or 389-6630.