Parents give kids an early head start

It’s a miracle she can walk.

Makayla Hatch was two months premature and weighed only 2 pounds when she was born. From first sight, Jaimee Hatch knew her daughter would need extra help in her vital first years. Makayla’s first steps seemed so far away. “I wanted her to be able to keep up when she went to school,” Hatch said.

Now bubbly and two-and-a-half, Makayla has progressed in literal leaps and bounds.

She was busy finishing a bowl of chicken noodle soup when Tricia Griffin arrived at her home on a recent afternoon. Makayla dropped her spoon and ran from the table when she heard Griffin pull up in her mini-van.

The door was barely open when Makayla pushed her grandmother “L. J.” aside so she could hug Griffin’s legs before she was even through the door. The visitor had her arms full of activity supplies and was nearly knocked over by the girl’s momentum.

To Griffin it seemed like yesterday that Makayla mastered crawling; today she can’t stop walking — and running, jumping or hugging.

Grandma L. J. attempted to coax the child back to the table to finish her lunch, but she wouldn’t; she was too distracted. There was adventures to be had with homemade play dough, beans, paper, crayons, glue, and paint. It was only when her mother, Jaimee, walked through the door that Makayla paused for a moment.

Griffin, an infant-toddler specialist with the Skagit/Islands Head Start program, visits the house weekly. Makayla is one of 10 children currently enrolled in the Early Head Start program on South Whidbey.

Head Start is a national development program which provides free developmental services for children in low-income households and social services for their families. Early Head Start, the only offering on South Whidbey, provides these services for pregnant mothers and children from birth to age 3. The Skagit/Islands Head Start program is supported by Skagit Valley College and serves 431 children in Skagit, Island and San Juan counties. Of these, 348 are enrolled in the Head Start preschool for ages 3-4, and 83 are pregnant women and children ages birth to age 3.

Griffin has been visiting the Hatches since Makayla was eight months old. From the first visit to many after, Griffin sets goals with the Early Head Start children and their parents. The goals start seemingly small, but build to a visible progression. Pulling themselves up turns into walking. Scribbling with crayons turns into young penmanship. What may seem like child’s play with beans, cotton balls, paint and other supplies translates into the development of gross motor skills.

Learning time means fun for the family, too

The three sat down on the kitchen floor and Makayla went to work pouring beans, mashing play dough and rolling the two together. As Griffin and Hatch talked about Makayla’s trials and triumphs of the last week, their adult conversation was dotted with “Are you rolling it Makayla? Is that what you’re doing?” “Let’s make a cookie. Good; you know not to eat it don’t you?” and “There’s the spatula — can you say spatula, Makayla?”

Makayla added to the conversation with her observation that “ducky on” when she reattached the head to a doughy cutout animal.

Griffin was amazed at the young sentences Makayla assembles.

“She almost seems to be doing more talking since I saw her last week,” she said.

“She’s been tossing out six-word sentences,” Hatch said.

The play dough and beans were soon retired and Makayla pulled herself into a chair at the kitchen table. Griffin spread out construction paper, crayons, scissors, glue and tissue paper and Makayla began scribbling, cutting and pasting together her masterpiece.

Early Head Start on South Whidbey has existed for only two years, it provides weekly home visits, pregnancy support and prenatal education, developmental screening and activities, promotion of positive parenting skills, family support and help in accessing health services, nutrition counseling, connections with other community agencies, twice a month parent/child activities groups.

The federally mandated program looks to serve the lowest of incomes and children and families most at-risk. It is hoped that if these families are supported the children will be on the level of their peers once they reach kindergarten. If accepted into the program there is no cost to the families. There is only commitment required.

Jaimee Hatch will turn 19 in June. She was a 16-year-old student at Bayview High School when she became pregnant. She worked three jobs, went to school and took care of Makayla. Hatch admits she didn’t know much about being a parent. She isn’t alone, and the in-home sessions are designed to be as much a benefit for the parents as they are for the children.

“It helps build a positive change in family dynamics, and eventually a positive relationship to school,” Griffin said.

Twice-weekly play groups that mingle kids in the Early Head Start program with kids from the Toddler Learning Center allows not only kids to interact with others, but also parents.

“We learn from each other,” said Early Head Start parent, Ashley Hudson of Clinton.

Hudson’s son, 17-month-old Anthony Hudson Reeves has been in the program since he was 2 months old. His mother is expecting her second child, a child that is already enrolled in the Early Head Start Program. She wanted to have even more of a jump start this time.

“There were a lot of things I didn’t know about babies and there were things that I didn’t recognize I knew and this has helped me make the connections,” Hudson said.

Early Head Start utilizes how at the early developmental age, children seem to learn best with parents, Griffin said. And when at home the classroom tends to get a little creative. Refrigerators are turned into easels. Kitchen floors are major project areas. Toy cars’ wheels are used as paintbrushes. It’s through this hands-on learning that children do best, Griffin said.

“People think Sesame Street is good for their kids, but they’ll learn so much more by simply going outside and playing in the dirt,” she said.

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