Parents, kids learn together

The Baltimore Sun

Carly Snider flipped through the magazine ads, searching for images that would appeal to her infant son.

She cut out pictures of grapes, a chocolate-brown Labrador and Goldfish crackers floating in a bowl of soup. Snider then glued them to small pieces of construction paper and slipped each one into a sandwich bag. The plastic "pages" were bound together with masking tape, creating a book in a matter of minutes.

"The nice thing about this book is that you can change the pictures," said Courtney Hundertmark, a parent educator who had suggested the project during the home visit with Snider and her then-11-month-old son, Collin.

The Sniders are one of many families in Carroll who are taking advantage of Parents as Teachers, an internationally used program that aims to foster early childhood development and show parents the crucial role they play during that period.

"Parenting is such a hard job, and there's no instruction manual," Hundertmark said. The program serves to help equip mothers and fathers for their roles.

In Carroll, where it is part of a countywide initiative to improve school readiness, Parents as Teachers takes on a rare form: It is a universal-access service, open to all families with children from birth to age 5 or expecting a child, said Susan Mitchell, coordinator of the county's Judy Center Partnership. The partnership organizes the program, which is funded by Carroll's local management board.

"We're seeing so many children who are coming into kindergarten who aren't ready for the expectations of kindergarten," Hundertmark said. "It's definitely worthwhile to invest in the children before they reach school."

"The early childhood years are critical. They set the foundation for early years in learning," said Yolanda Abel, who teaches early childhood classes at the Johns Hopkins University.

Since Parents as Teachers went countywide, the number of registered families has jumped to nearly 220 -- or about 300 children -- more than twice the number signed up last summer. The program consists of home visits, group meetings with other parents, connections to community resources and periodic screenings to ensure a child is properly progressing.

The frequency of educators' visits varies, depending on the needs -- and interest -- of a family. While Hundertmark has been visiting the Sniders biweekly since Collin was 3 months old, sessions could be monthly or weekly. Educators come in with a plan specific to the child's age and spend about an hour in the home, introducing an activity or new concept while also observing.

On one visit, Hundertmark brought a white laundry basket and put a few toys in it.

"Can you go push the basket?" she said to the child. "Go ahead. Take it for a walk."

Collin grabbed the rim and shuffled ahead.

"That's it. Push, push," Hundertmark said. He moved ahead tentatively -- step, push, step, push -- encouraged by both women.

The exercise would help his upper and lower body, Hundertmark explained to Snider. "He's definitely getting more coordinated," she said.

Later, the women talked while Collin played in the living room area filled with his toys, among them an alligator xylophone, a plastic dog on wheels and a Kawasaki toy bike.

Had Snider tried giving him crayons yet?

"Oh yeah," she said, smiling. "Straight to his mouth."

To develop Collin's fine motor skills, Hundertmark suggested letting him play with pudding, to fingerpaint. "Works like the crayons, but then if you eat it, it's OK," she said.

By introducing homemade toys, such as the "zip-top bag book," she shows parents that "it's not about high-dollar toys and videos," she said. "It's the relationship that parents develop with their children. ... Every moment is a teachable moment."

Snider said she appreciated the simple games Hundertmark had introduced to the household: filling a metal bowl with objects for Collin to shake, throwing balls to work on his hand-eye coordination.

With Hundertmark's guidance, Snider and Collin have flourished, said Kasey Turner, Snider's mother, who has worked with children for more than two decades.

"He's been more curious and a lot better observer since Courtney has started with him," Turner said, adding that she has also seen "a lot more interaction and a lot more play." Hundertmark is giving her daughter "more confidence in what she's doing," Turner said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful program."

Snider said she enjoys the meetings with other parents, as well as the home visits.

"That's an hour where Collin and I get to sit down and actually play together," Snider said. "It's a real good bonding experience." And one she doesn't always get with an active 1-year-old on his feet most of the day.

"When Courtney's here, he knows it's time to sit down," Snider said.

Collin was doing just that once his mother had finished making his new book, staring intently at the pictures she had cut out for him.

"Is that Sadie?" Snider said, referring to the Lab and their own dog. She pointed to the next page.

"Grapes," she said.

Collin took the book and tossed it away.

"That's OK," Hundertmark said. "That's a pretty obvious cue: 'I'm done.'"

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