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Tracy Briggs, Published September 08 2009

Parenting Perspectives: Quality child care includes healthy learning environment

Today I sent my baby to kindergarten.

I won’t go into the gory details. It’s not easy being a mushball mom. I cry at the drop of a hat and, of course, that includes tearing up as I help my daughter sling her SpongeBob Squarepants backpack over her tiny shoulder.

She starts a new chapter in her life, but it’s us parents who can’t help but look back with sentiment. Her first words, her first steps, her first time telling me “I DO IT MYSELF!” That walk down memory lane includes a look at those people who’ve gotten her this far.

We’ve been fortunate to have remarkable child care providers over the past seven years; people who are committed to not just the care but the education of our two daughters.

I saw firsthand how my older daughter hit the ground running when she started kindergarten, thanks in part to the education she received prior to the age of 5. It’s an opportunity that every child should have.

These are important years. In fact, between birth and age 5, children’s brains are developing faster than at any other point in their life. They’re like little sponges ready to absorb all that you will teach them.

The United Way of Cass Clay hopes to capitalize on this window of opportunity with their Success by Six initiative that helps “ensure children have positive and enriching experiences necessary to begin school prepared to succeed.”

It’s not just children who benefit with quality early childhood education. Overwhelming research shows that society benefits as well, with lowered rates of crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. What a child learns before the age of 6 sets the stage for future success, behavior and achievement.

According to a recent report from Childcare Resource and Referral about “80 percent of North Dakota children spend most of their waking hours with people other than their parents.” They are our future leaders. We must ensure they are spending time with adults who will foster their development and help their brains grow.

A friend of mine who worked in the child care field told me it drove her nuts when people called her a “day care” provider. She used to say, “We’re not taking care of your days, we’re taking care of your child!”

Too often, child care workers are simply seen as caretakers or baby sitters. Sadly, that is an accurate description for some poor-quality providers who merely make sure no harm comes to your child while you are at work. But most child care workers should be seen for what they truly are: educators.

They don’t work in calculus equations or term papers, but in fingerpaints and macaroni necklaces. They don’t use flashcards to drill numbers or letters into our children’s heads, but they awaken young minds to sensations, ideas and a love of learning.

They get paid too little for such an important job, yet parents often struggle to even pay that small salary. There are no easy answers in these tight budgetary times, but states simply need to allocate more resources to early childhood education.

The payoff is real. One decades-long study out of Michigan showed that for every dollar invested in high-quality early education and care programs $17 would be saved down the road with lowered crime and higher individual education and earnings.

So today, as I get ready to send my daughter – and her friend SpongeBob – off to school, I’m grateful that, through luck and circumstance, her dad and I, together with some great early education teachers, have been able to give her a running start toward kindergarten.

And I hope that in the coming years every child will have the same opportunity.

Tracy Briggs is a mother of two and a personality for WDAY AM 970.