“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I know I can” — an iconic line from Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could,” a tale of a little blue railroad train that wants to deliver presents to children but first needs to get across a hill.
The book has been used for almost a century to teach children about courage, perseverance, hard work and optimism.
It is also the first book children receive who are enrolled in the Prince George’s Memorial Library System’s Books from Birth program, an umbrella program of the library system’s Ready 2 Read initiative.
In 2017, the library system devoted a portion of its strategic plan to focus on children from the time they are born to when they turn 5 years old.
“It’s mostly about kindergarten readiness and our desire to provide free services for families and help them become their child’s first teacher and their best teacher,” said Pamela Hamlin, the family literacy specialist for the library system.
The Ready 2 Read program focuses on reading, playing and singing, to help children define their motor skills before heading into kindergarten, Hamlin said.
“The years from birth to age 5 are the most crucial period of learning in a child’s life,” according to the Maryland State Department of Education. “This is the ‘window’ in which a child’s greatest brain development takes place.”
Over 7,100 children have signed up for the monthly book program, allowing for the library system to mail out nearly 52,000 books, according to Hamlin.
The books are from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a book gifting program that mails free books each month to children from birth until the age of 5. Families, whose children reside in Prince George’s County and are under the age of 4 and 11 months, can sign up at any of the libraries. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, bolstered the library’s budget to fund the program, according to Robin Jacobsen, director of community engagement for the library system.
As each child phases out of Books from Birth, their last book is “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come,” by Nancy Carlson, a story about a boy named Henry who experiences his first day of kindergarten.
In between, the books vary and are age appropriate, Hamlin said.
The Howard County school system in partnership with the Bright Minds Foundation and the Howard County Early Childhood Advisory Council, is set to launch Read With Me, an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, in the late fall.
The pilot program will provide a book each month to families whose children attend Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck and Swansfield elementary schools.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman approved funding for the initiative.
“Giving a young child a book is the best way to get them interested in learning, and it helps them to become better prepared to start school,” Kittleman said, in a statement. “Programs like this are vital to a child’s success.”
Along with Books from Birth, The Ready 2 Read umbrella programs offered in all county libraries include daily storytimes for children ages 0 through 5; Ready 2 Read Centers, where children can participate in hands-on experiences and activities focused on literacy; and check out backpacks filled with books at any library.
“In the Ready 2 Read Centers, we want to show parents how play is important,” Hamlin said. “It [play] fosters dialogue between children and other children and children and caregivers.” Hamlin said.
The Laurel Branch Library has a dinosaur-themed Ready 2 Read Center featuring an imaginary saber-tooth tiger with its paw prints climbing up the wall and ceiling.
The paw prints are for a child “to imagine that one [a saber-tooth tiger] comes in [to the center] and crawls around at night,” said Karin Luoma, the assistant Laurel Branch manager.
Children can also check out backpacks with themes like transportation or neighborhood. Each themed backpack has five books and an activity sheet for parents that includes activities such as snacks to make, finge rplays and songs that “extend the reading,” of the books, Hamlin said.
Like books, families can check out a backpack for three weeks at a time
“On average, we have 20 ready to read backpacks,” Luoma said.“They are pretty popular.”
Some are even bilingual, with backpacks from French to English and Spanish to English, Luoma said.
Another popular umbrella program of Ready 2 Read is story time.
There are over 60 story times a week available for children to attend. The daily programs feature stories, songs, finger plays and more
“Every branch has them,” Jacobsen said. “There’s a structure to story times [and it] gives the child a chance to socialize with other children.”
Since the Laurel Branch opened in November 2016, the library has expanded its story time offerings from four to seven weekly programs for the various age groups, Luoma said.
“We have that demand and we see a tremendous impact [in offering the story times],” Luoma said. “Kids really love seeing their librarians in story time.”
Story times are important, said Marcy Richardson, a librarian III with youth services at the Laurel , because when children have a background of reading, it helps them master early literacy skills.
Parents learn activities they can do with their children to help them master literacy skills, Richardson said.
“ If we are reading about color, next time they’re [parent] in a grocery store, they can point out the different colors of food,” Richardson said.
Certain story times are offered in languages other than English and American Sign Language.
“Because every library branch is so firmly embedded in their neighborhood, it’s [Ready 2 Read] a great opportunity for families to have a destination where learning is fun, children can play and everything is available for free,” Jacobsen said.