Pima County Public Library preps preschoolers for the classroom

This article by Kendra Davey and Araceli Islas was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on December 15, 2019.

Over the last several years, we have been learning a lot about how the brain develops during the early part of our lives, and continues to develop up through the mid-20s.

As we learn more about brain development, Pima County Public Library staff have been working on developing and offering programs for children and families that help support Tucson’s youngest learners.

For example, many years ago, the library only had Storytime for 3- to 5-year-olds, but as we learned more about how important singing and talking is for babies to learn language, we added Baby Storytime.

We also discovered that toddlers learn by play, and it takes practice to develop a longer attention span. Thus, the library added Toddler Storytime, which is designed for the brain development of children ages 18 months to 3 years.

More recently, we have been learning about the developmental stages of 4- to 5-year-olds and the brain skills they need to enter school ready to meet the challenge of becoming an independent learner in a more formal classroom setting.

We have also been considering the new challenges faced by parents and caregivers to get their children ready for school as the expectations for what kids need to know before kindergarten has changed.

With these things in mind, the Pima County Public Library is excited to offer a new, targeted school-ready program for 4- and 5-year-olds and their parents and caregivers. This new program—Ready, Set, School!—gives young learners a chance to practice some of the skills they will need when they start kindergarten.

Skills include learning their letters and numbers, practicing attention and focus, as well as self-regulation, communication, and making connections and critical thinking, according to Kendra Davey, the library’s Literacy Initiatives Program manager.

The program also offers a chance for parents and caregivers to learn simple ways they can model and support these thinking skills with their children. As with learning anything new, like catching a ball or playing an instrument, thinking skills take practice. Simple tasks like lining up are learned behaviors that Araceli Islas worked on with the first cohort of Ready, Set, School! students in April and May of 2019.

Islas, an AmeriCorps state member who served at the Pima County Public Library, helped research, develop and facilitate the pilot program for families in Pima County. AmeriCorps state members provide direct services or help build capacity for agencies serving low-income populations. Islas’ service, supported through the office of Arizona Serve of Prescott College and hosted by Pima County Public Library, allowed her to see all the small ways that Ready, Set, School! and the library make a big impact in the lives of families in Southern Arizona.

“’It’s time to line-up!,’” Islas recalls telling the students. “The children all got up and rushed to the edge of the mat standing in what resembled more of a cluster than a line. I tried again, but the cluster was still a cluster. With some encouragement and guidance from their grown-ups, the group of 4- to 5-year-olds successfully formed a line. Lining up was only one of the many new classroom experiences for the participants of the library’s pilot Ready, Set, School! program.”

During the first week of the program, as the kids walked into the Children’s Room at Joel D. Valdez Main Library, they looked around, taking in the letter chart, the Hobermann Sphere and the activity trays, all of which were unfamiliar additions to their familiar story time space. The children sat on the rug, their grown-ups in chairs along the back of the room, waiting for the new program to begin. For many of the kids, this was the first time they had had an experience that was similar to a preschool classroom.

Ready, Set, School! isn’t just about the kids learning new skills, it is also about sharing information with adults about the ways their child is learning and giving them tips on how to support their child’s growth at home.

The second week, grown-ups came back excited to share how they had practiced a sound chant at home and found ways to make their own letter and number charts. Every week, the children made progress, remembering the songs and activities, practicing using their words and raising their hands, getting just a little closer to being ready for school.

Each week of the free eight-week program focuses on a different executive function skill that children will use throughout their lives as successful learners. Ninety-minute classes are held once a week.

There are also fun, interactive activities adults can do with their children to help develop and practice executive function skills. A home “play” activity is also provided each week so kids can keep practicing the fun things they are learning in the program.

The Pima County Public Library is proud to offer Ready, Set, School! Learning skills are essential, but so is confidence. With this program, kids are building the self-assurance they’ll need to take that first step into a classroom, and their future.

The next Ready, Set, School! program will begin Jan. 6 at Murphy-Wilmot Library. The program is limited to 15 participants and requires registration by Dec. 20. To register, visit the Murphy-Wilmot Library, 530 N. Wilmot Road, or call 594-5420. The program will be offered at additional libraries throughout the year.