Marcus, now 3, has a cereal-box smile and a face as round as a full moon. He loves dinosaurs and Spider-Man, and his favorite book is Curious George Flies a Kite. He took to playing the drums because he wanted to play along with a special gospel DVD his parents would put on TV. Every week, with his hands or with utensils, he banged and slapped and thumped. To most parents, it might have looked like the start of a potentially long, weekly headache. But to Marcus's parents, it just looked like potential—to develop motor skills, to sound out rhythms, to build his sensory awareness and attention span—if they could get him to play in some kind of instructional setting.
"I had seen an ad for a drum center in our community paper, so I called," says Sandra Hinds, 43, a mother of two who teaches sociology part-time at a community college near her home in Acton, Massachusetts, north of Boston. "The teachers were great about experimenting with 15-minute lessons, because 30 minutes seemed too long, and it was perfect. They would start him on the bongo drum, and introduce him to the snare, the crash cymbals, the triangle. But he was the youngest child they'd ever had. People would come in and say, 'He's a student?' They were always really surprised."
Whether parents recognize it or not, education advocates say children as young as Marcus, and far younger, are students in the purest sense. They are examining and exploring, retaining and discarding—forming pathways in the brain at an astounding rate and creating the fundamental building blocks on which their lifelong learning depends. They may be far from sitting still at school desks, raising their hands when called on or writing in a copybook. But from the time children are born to age 8, their growing minds are at the height of what some scientists call "synaptic exuberance," massive bursts of brain-building development whose rapid pace will gradually start to taper off by the time they enter third grade.
In major urban centers like Boston and the suburbs that surround them, Black parents are reclaiming their role as their children's first educators, enrolling their 2-year-olds in learning-focused playgroups and supplementing their 3- and 4-year-olds' preschool with kindergarten-readiness programs. But most important, they are learning new ways to fire their kids' brains through rich, open-ended conversation and simple everyday routines—from loading the dishwasher to cruising the aisles at the supermarket.
The Hindses say their instincts with Marcus flowed directly from their trial-and-error efforts to create learning moments with Raesa, their 5-year-old daughter. Watching Raesa chase her brother around the kitchen island of the family's town-home, it's clear their parents have done more than a few things right with both. When you ask the couple how they play with their children, Raesa, now in kindergarten, doesn't hesitate to chime in. And when she talks, she beams. "Sometimes when we go somewhere we make shapes out of the clouds in the sky, and we say 'I see an airplane!' and we have a lot of fun," she says, comfortably looking a stranger in the eye. "One time in my dad's room we played [I Spy] and everybody got a turn, and we took the roll in the paper towel and made it like a telescope and we had to guess what we were spying."
As leaders across the political spectrum continue to clash over charter schools and teacher accountability, and award-winning films like the 2010 documentary Waiting for "Superman" offer a searing indictment of our failing public education system, more and more educators say it's the period of toddler development—and the crucial role that parents play in it—that holds the key to closing America's gaping achievement gap.
Why are parents so critical to the equation? Because a growing body of research shows that dramatic gaps in literacy and learning have already formed by the time children get to the schoolhouse door. In 1995 a major study of household language use showed that by age 4, children of professional parents on average hear about 45 million words, while children of working-class parents hear 26 million, and children of parents in welfare programs hear just 13 million. The number of words parents spoke to their kids as toddlers, a follow-up study found, was tightly linked to academic success at age 9 or 10. By then, experts say, the amount of intervention needed to counteract that language void is immense.
Other recent studies have made a strong case that parenting habits play a critical role in children's learning lives, and that the difference between good parenting and high-achievement parenting has less to do with spending money or using strict discipline, and more to do with creating a lifestyle of imaginative everyday learning. In 2007 research by Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative Director Ronald Ferguson likely shocked parents and educators with data that showed profound racial gaps in parents' habits around learning. The gaps were perhaps most striking among college-educated parents: For example, Black parents on average had about half as many books in their homes as White parents, and only 47 percent read to their kindergarten-age kids daily, as opposed to 60 percent of their White counterparts.
"There's this myth that learning doesn't really begin until children are able to understand, talk, respond and focus on one area of learning," says Janice Im, interim chief program officer at Zero to Three, a leading national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to fostering early childhood development through policy, research and family resource initiatives. "In actuality, the foundation for school, I would even say for life readiness, is laid way before children can work out something like a math problem, before they can count or focus on the alphabet, and certainly before they enter school."
"The difference between good parenting and high-achievement parenting has...a lot to do with creating a lifestyle of imaginative everyday learning."
While acknowledging the entrenched barriers of racism and economic inequality, Im says the presence of learning gaps before children enter school speaks loudly to the power parents have in creating lifelong learners.
By now, many parents know that children benefit from what Im calls "rich experiences"—early exposure to a wide variety of books, access to different writing tools, opportunities to see, hear, smell, touch and feel the world around them. What parents don't know, she says, is how essential they are to making those moments meaningful.
"Those rich experiences for children don't just lie in what's happening around them, or in the material or the toy itself," Im says. "What makes it rich is that parent. Often what we tell parents is, 'You are your child's favorite toy. You are what's going to make that experience come to life.'"
Growing up in Brooklyn, Carleen Tucker says education was more than a big deal in her house. "It was the only deal," says the 37-year-old mother of four. "Your job was to go to school. Everything revolved around that."
But for Tucker, a supervisor at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care now living in Boston, the strict enforcement around learning could also be traumatizing. That's something she wants to change for her kids.
"One thing that's been really big for me as a mother is wanting my children to want to learn, more so than having it drilled into their heads," says Tucker, mother of 2-year-old twins Jackson and Brooklyn and 7-year-old Maxwell, and stepmother to 17-year-old Taj since first grade. "I think if you're having fun while you're learning, you're going to embrace it and follow it that much more."
Like a lot of families, Tucker and her husband, Marc, 40, read books and work on puzzles with their kids. But they also do a lot of playing with language and numbers. When Tucker is cooking rice, she measures the ingredients out loud and points out the different sizes of each measuring cup. At home it's not unusual to see the twins carrying and writing in their own notebooks, which they also use at their family day care. "The twins love words," Tucker says. "My husband plays a game where he will go around the house pointing to random things and shouting out the names for all of them."
Some of the strategies might not seem significant: Early on, for example, Tucker chose to speak to her kids in a regular adult voice instead of using baby talk. As her kids have learned how to say "bottle" and "I have to go to the bathroom" or learned their own body parts, she uses the real terms as opposed to silly nicknames. "You get that reaction sometimes from people, like 'Carleen, why are you talking to them like they're real people?' " she says. "But I really do think it helps them learn better to know the real terms for things."
When it comes to preparing toddlers for future success, experts say the hands-on play and subtle shifts in parenting habits that Tucker and other parents are carving out can have a huge impact.
"I often say to parents, 'Don't feel like you have to try to create these special activities outside of your daily life. Just include children in the things that you're already doing,' " says Susan Werley Slater, executive director for the northeast region of Jumpstart, a national early education organization that trains college students and community volunteers to teach preschool students in low-income communities.
"If you're doing laundry, talk to them about colors fading and why that happens. Try to build hypotheses with your child about how things work," Slater says of the Jumpstart approach. The organization offers a series of bilingual guides for parents and grandparents that are chock-full of everyday strategies—from making pretend grocery lists to helping kids take care of a stuffed animal as if it were a real pet. "The idea is really to use your child's natural curiosity for conversations."
Learning 'in Chaos'
Jumpstart, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary next year, has garnered national attention for its kindergarten readiness model, which emphasizes low student–teacher ratio, core language and literacy skills and child-focused discovery in two-hour sessions twice a week. Part of a growing corps of local, state and national organizations focused on prekindergarten learning, Jumpstart has delivered free programming to more than 100,000 preschool children in 14 states, including New York, Florida, Texas, Michigan and California.
At a recent Jumpstart class in Boston, all the signs of a traditional preschool atmosphere were evident. Inside the classroom at College Bound Dorchester, sounds of raucous play echoed across a room filled with play mats, wood blocks and paper collages plastered on the walls. There was a pretend kitchen and market, where children rung up groceries at a cash register. And as circle time began, teachers helped about eighteen 3- and 4-year-olds settle down—putting on their listening ears, snapping on their quiet lips and sitting "criss-cross applesauce," hands folded in their laps.
But as the session unfolded, it was clear something was different. Building on a children's book the kids knew well, Philemon Sturges's The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza), a team member led the students as they figured out how to spell the word mozzarella, letter by letter, sound by sound. Later, after reading Ezra Jack Keats's classic tale A Letter to Amy, about a boy named Peter who mails a party invitation to a friend, students engaged in a party-invitation activity that not only allowed them to use their creativity but also naturally led to teaching concepts around dates, times, addresses, postage and terms like "RSVP."
For Jumpstart, a big part of preparing kids for kindergarten also lies outside the classroom—working with parents. That's because some of the same behaviors that parents may see as disruptive or disrespectful—interrupting a bedtime story with questions, for example—actually matter for toddlers' development, Slater says.
"A lot of times new parents will come pick up their kids and they'll say, 'How were they?' Meaning, how was their behavior," Slater says. "But one thing I remind parents of is, when you're talking about kids this age, they're learning in what can look to us to be chaos. When you see them running around and touching things, that's the way learning often looks when you're 4."
Judith Bonheur, a 41-year-old day care teacher in Boston, has seen the benefits of Jumpstart firsthand. Her 5-year-old daughter, Benedicte, is currently in the program, and her 6-year-old son, Sheehan, attended it before beginning kindergarten last year. "I saw the way they work with kids. They do so much more with learning and development, so much that a regular preschool doesn't offer," says Bonheur. "They give me lists of books and talk about how to get the most out of them. They gave us activities to do based on the weather, the seasons, vegetables. They really develop the whole child."
It's an opportunity her middle-school son, 10-year-old Stanley, didn't have. "I wish that he had had Jumpstart when he was little, because I know how valuable it is and how much it would have helped him do that much better," says Bonheur, whose son struggled for a time in elementary school before catching up with his classmates by fourth grade. "I always read to all my kids since they were babies. But with Jumpstart the kids got more engaged, and I was doing stuff at home I wouldn't normally do."
Chanel Bowden, a 22-year-old mom, full-time student and waitress living in Milton, Massachusetts, knows something about what it means to think about educating your child from birth: When Bowden herself was still in utero, her mother, an academic adviser at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, put her on a five-year waiting list for an ongoing grant-funded program that sends Boston students to wealthy suburban school districts from kindergarten through high school.
"You actually can't sign your kid up in utero anymore because it's now against the rules," Bowden says, and the smile on her face suggests she would have done the same for her son, 2½-year-old Josiah, if she could have. But within weeks of Josiah's birth, Bowden was back at the same office, signing him up in the hopes that he will get into the program by the time he turns 5. "In the suburb where I went to school, people were a lot more invested in education," she says. "In elementary and middle school they were already preparing us and pushing us to be good writers and strong math students. I don't even want to think about Josiah not getting in."
Watching Josiah play and climb on his mother like a jungle gym, it's clear no one knows this little boy as well as Bowden. She knows Josiah's favorite lines in Goodnight Moon and how far they can get reading Green Eggs and Ham before he gets bored. "Josiah and I spend a lot of time together," she says, cradling him after he's woken from a car-ride nap. "I really haven't wanted to put him in day care if I can be with him and teach him at home."
Bowden also knows that in order for her son to take full advantage of a high-performing suburban school in the future, she has to start preparing him early. She does that in more ways than one: "We talk a lot, even when we're just driving and he's in the backseat of the car," Bowden says. "I'll say, 'Hey, Josiah! It's a school bus. What color is that school bus?' Or we'll be at the store and I'll point out cereal that I know he doesn't like, and I'll say, 'Is that your favorite cereal?' And he'll say, 'No way!!!' I want to see what he recognizes and what he's aware of." Last year Bowden took it a step further. She enrolled Josiah in Boston's Countdown to Kindergarten program, joining one of ten kindergarten-readiness playgroups across the city called Play to Learn. The readiness playgroups, which are free, start as young as age 18 months.
"I definitely don't want Josiah to be at a disadvantage. And I think everyone who has their kids in Countdown to Kindergarten is into their child's development," Bowden says. "I don't think there are any who are indifferent about where their kids end up or how they're learning."
In her playgroup, there isn't much talk about the achievement gap per se. The focus is on free play, circle time, stretchy bands and parachutes and Itsy Bitsy Spider. But Bowden says the focus on lifelong learning is clear. "They talk a lot about preparing the children for kindergarten and what that means. And they ask us to do things at home," Bowden says. "They keep us up to date with events at libraries all over the city. They tell us that when the kids are singing, they're learning."