KINGMAN - A new website launched by First Things First will make it easier for local parents to choose quality childcare and preschools.
The website, QualityFirstAZ.com, gives parents information about why quality childcare and preschools are important and what they look like. It also offers tools parents can use to find quality facilities that meet their needs.
The tools include a list of questions to ask potential childcare sites and preschools, as well as a list of things to do before visiting them.
Erin Taylor, community outreach coordinator for the First Things First's La Paz/Mohave Regional Partnership Council, said the statewide agency constantly emphasizes that 90 percent of a child's brain develops before the fifth year. She said the experiences and relationships children develop in those early years shape their learning now and throughout their lives.
"Parents are their child's first and best teacher, but in Arizona, 60 percent of children live in families where all of the adults work," said Taylor. "So most children spend their day learning from other adults in either private homes or center-based settings. Quality may not always be easy for families to spot or for providers to achieve without some assistance."
That's where Quality First and its new website come in, said Taylor. Quality First partners with childcare and preschool providers to improve the quality of early learning across Arizona. It is a program of First Things First, a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help children become successful once they enter kindergarten.
According to First Things First, skills such as motivation, self-control, focus and self-esteem are rooted in early childhood and learned from interactions with adults. Since many of those interactions now take place in childcare and preschool settings, it is vital they are quality environments that build on basic health and safety. Children who have quality early education experiences are more prepared for kindergarten and do better in school.
Quality childcare sites and preschools should have teachers and caregivers who know how to work with young children, positive and nurturing relationships that give individual attention, learning environments that encourage creativity and imaginative play, hands-on activities that stimulate positive brain connections, and caregivers who provide regular feedback to parents on achild's development.
Julie Beyer, early childhood program coordinator for Little Explorers Early Learning Center in Kingman, said quality is essential in both a childcare and preschool setting. The center, part of the Kingman Unified School District and housed in the former La Senita Elementary School building, has 25 children in its childcare program and 30 in its morning and afternoon preschool program. Its six certified teachers each have two classroom assistants.
"Quality is important because when these children go to kindergarten, they need to be ready to learn," said Beyer. "Preschool children are such interested and curious learners, and if we don't capitalize on that, we miss a great opportunity to get them ready for school.
KUSD kindergarten teachers can tell which students come from Little Explorers because they follow routine and direction well, said Beyer. That's because the preschool focuses on five categories - social interaction, self-help, communication, large and small motor skills and cognitive skills, or how students learn.
A coach from First Things First also visits the campus at least once a month to observe activities at the childcare and preschool and provide suggestions, said Beyer. The coach also educates staff on various issues, including the state's new early learning standards, how to ask questions that make students think at a higher level and methods of setting up classroom environments so children learn better.
Little Explorers strives for particular goals, said Beyer, including a structured class environment, constant teaching that resembles play, small adult-child ratio, addition of new programs, plenty of technology such as touch screens and iPads, and hands-on experiences. Preschool students built a garden this summer with 18 raised beds, said Beyer, and are now harvesting squash and waiting for their pumpkins. Fall planting will begin soon.
"When parents come in, I tell them we aren't just babysitters," said Beyer. "I explain that we are a set-up environment that is well planned out and has as its purpose teaching children the skills they need for school. I tell them about our quality and training of our staff. And I love to take the parents on tours of our classrooms. I want them to see that everything we do here is intentional to help these children succeed."