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Education begins early with Smart Start

By Greg Gelpi

Educating a child starts long before entering the education system, Smart Start Georgia children demonstrated.

Singing about petroleum jelly, exploring the educational playgrounds of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and bonding with their childcare providers, children from Clayton and Fulton counties brought awareness to early childhood development.

Strings of paper dolls lined the children's section of the garden for the event. Each child colored and decorated one of the 3,000 paper dolls to represent a child impacted by Smart Start Georgia, a public and private partnership to address childhood development.

Caring for children at a young age, even as young as newborn to age 3, is vital to a child's success, said Karen Langston, a childcare provider in Jonesboro, adding that Smart Start helped her obtain childcare accreditation.

"They need to start right there to get them ready for school," Langston of Children's Learning Palace in Jonesboro said.

She works with their parents, holding regular group sessions and writing daily notes to them, to further their children's learning and development, she said.

Childcare means more than simply babysitting a child, Langston said.

"I'm more than a babysitter," she said. "I'm a provider."

Langston has kept children in her home for three years and was a social worker before that.

With help from Smart Start Georgia, she introduced toys into her daycare that improve motor, cognitive and developmental skills.

"I don't just sit them down in a structured environment and tell them their ABCs," Langston said.

Valeria Watson, who cares for children in her Riverdale home, said Smart Start Georgia taught her many things about early childhood development.

Her children "learn through playing" and use a curriculum that emphasizes reading and singing, Watson said.

"The early years of a child's education, ages birth through five, are the most critical in a child's development," according to Smart Start Georgia. "In fact, ninety percent of a child's intellect, personality and social skills are formed by age three.

Studies consistently show that children who experience high-quality, stable child care demonstrate better language and math skills, are more able to form secure attachments with adults and other children, and develop better cognitive and social skills."

More money and more time must be invested in children before they enter school so that they are better prepared, Smart Start Georgia Director Sharen Hausmann said. As it is, many students aren't prepared as evidenced by the number of students not performing at grade level on the Criterion Reference Competency Test.

"It demonstrates to us that there are a lot of kids, a lot of kids who start school who aren't ready for school," Hausmann said. "They don't start failing in the fourth grade. They come into school one or two years behind."

Studies show the effects on the brain and importance of early childhood education and development, Hausmann said. She called early childcare providers the "most important job anyone could have in the whole world."

Children ages newborn to 5 in programs such as Smart Start "succeed at a higher rate than those who do not," she said.

The turnover rate for most programs is 45 percent, but for Smart Start it's about 10 percent, Hausmann said.

The program helps childcare providers further their education and receive childcare accreditation, as well as providing information and assistance in caring for and educating young children.