It’s unusual, to say the least, to go to see a cabinet minister about a blankie.
But The Telegram did just that when it asked Education Minister Clyde Jackman why his department has purchased 6,000 Lullaby Blankies.
The blankie in Jackman’s hands at his Confederation Building office is barely the size of a hand towel. But to a two-month-old infant, it will indeed be a blankie, embroidered with soothing messages that can be cooed by parents — “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” “Hush little baby” and “Rock-a-bye baby.”
It’s part of a pilot project that will begin rolling out at child health clinics this March. The kits will be available for two-, four- and six-month old infants.
Plans to expand program
And there are plans to eventually expand the resource kit program to 12-, 18-, 24- and 36-month-olds.
The program will cost about $500,000 a year over three years.
Besides the blankie, there are bath mitts, a collection of books selected for their interactive value, tip sheets and activity guides. And there’s a singalong CD featuring local artists.
Children in each age group will get different materials. For instance, the blankie — which helps teach babies about shape, colour, touch and feel — will be included in the kits for two-month olds and the bath mitt in the kits for six-month-olds.
One of Jackman’s favourite items in the kits is the book “Each Peach Pear Plum” which features a game in which traditional nursery rhyme characters like Jack and Jill and Mother Hubbard are hidden in the book’s drawings.
“As you read this kind of stuff you are going to say, ‘OK, even though they are six months old, where’s Tom Thumb?’ And you look around and you point him out,” Jackman said, demonstrating with the book.
As a father of five and grandfather of eight, with another grandchild on the way, Jackman said he believes in the importance of such basic educational tools. He also has a master’s degree in literacy.
“Our promotional piece around play, it might seem simple and trivial, (but) if you are into learning and you see what types of things take place when these type of activities are going on, you would understand more,” he said.
“Whenever I get one of my grandchildren, if we walk up a stairs, I count them. That might seem as simple and silly as anything, but it’s an association, so that with each step, it’s ‘one,’ it’s ‘two,’ it’s ‘three.’”
The kits will be provided to all parents of infants — regardless of income — because it’s about education, not affordability, Jackman said.
“We don’t want this to be seen as for somebody who can’t afford it. This is something that all parents need to be aware of,” he said.
“Research shows more learning occurs between (age) zero and three than will ever occur for the rest of your life in terms of how you absorb. If you look at young children, it just totally amazes me how much they pick up in the course of from, say, 18 months to 24 months. They can go from just a babble to a word to a sentence. That just blows my mind.”
Jackman said he doesn’t think cue card education is natural, where babies are shown flash cards to learn alphabets and other skills.
“You don’t want parents thinking, OK this is a comprehension activity,” he said.
“You just want them to be aware that in the back of the mind when you do these things, there are other things happening that are preparing your child for a literate world. There are listening skills. There are comprehension skills. There are colouring skills being developed. There are number association skills being developed. So while an activity may seem so simple, there’s a heck of a lot more going on than what people may actually think.”
Jackman thinks parents will like the kits.
“And these are not books you are going to read once and lay down,” he said, pointing again to “Each Peach Pear Plum.”
“This book, I am telling you, will be read until it falls apart. … Nursery rhymes are wonderful things. I like them and they are great educational tools.”
It may seem like a retro exercise — encouraging reading with books and play with basic items like blankies and bath mitts — but the department recognizes the need to encourage play.
On a personal level, Jackman has taken a back-to-basics approach in his own home, outlawing BlackBerrys, iPads and other technology in his living room when family members visit.
“There is a sign in my basement that says ‘This is BlackBerry area, not my living room,’” he said.
Memorial University early childhood education expert Patricia Canning said public health nurses have been telling parents about the importance of play, language and reading for decades.
“It’s the nurses who really are meeting parents. They are the trusted people with parents. Parents have a lot of respect for public health nurses,” said Canning, asked to comment on the project.
She said this province has a excellent rate of immunization, regardless of social class or any other factor, so the clinics are the best place to reach out.
“(Government) is just helping the nurses to do what they have already been doing,” she said.
Marc Glassman is also a professor in education at Memorial and an expert in literacy.
An advocate of full-day kindergarten and junior kindergarten, Glassman said it’s his personal opinion that the resource kits are a good idea.
“The more information and the more materials that are provided to any parent who wants it anywhere in the province, I think, is money well spent. In the long run we will actually save money by spending it upfront at this point,” he said.
“All of these things would help a child prior to their coming to school.”
The pilot project is being offered by the Division of Early Childhood Learning and the child health clinics, which are operated by the four regional health authorities.
Clinic sites where the kits will be given out are Mount Pearl Square, MacMorran Community Centre in St. John’s, Harbour Grace, Marystown, St. Bernard’s, Bonavista, Conception Bay South, Labrador City, St. Anthony, Forteau, Stephenville, Corner Brook, Deer Lake, Norris Point, Grand Falls-Windsor, Gander, Gander Bay, Lewisporte and Belleoram.
The department hopes to hear feedback from nurses and parents as the first kits are handed out over the six to nine month pilot beginning in March.
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