April recognizes importance of early childhood learning

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Hayden Higginbotham, a preschooler at Discovery Learning Center in Steamboat Springs enjoys a sunny day on the playground Thursday.

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Preschoolers at the GrandKids Child Care Center sing and dance to music led by instructor Kathy St. George, right, during their inter-generational music class in the Doak Walker Care Center at the hospital in Steamboat Springs on Friday.

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Preschoolers at the GrandKids Child Care Center share hugs during their inter-generational music class in the Doak Walker Care Center at the hospital in Steamboat Springs on Friday.

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CJ Smith, left, and Hayden Higginbotham, right, both preschoolers at Discovery Learning Center in Steamboat Springs chase each other on the playground Thursday.

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Amelia Meyer, left, and Bella Waldschmidt, right, preschoolers at Discovery Learning Center in Steamboat Springs, make mud pies on the playground Thursday.

— When a child is struggling to walk or struggling to talk, unseen development is going on inside his or her head.

An estimated 80 percent of the human brain develops by the age of 3, according to a study conducted at the University of Washington. At birth, almost all the neurons the brain will ever have are present, making the first years of a person's life critical to his or her physical, mental and emotional well-being.

April is the Month of the Young Child in Routt County. First Impressions of Routt County, which serves the county's youngest children and their parents, uses April as a way to introduce its services and educate parents about their role in child development.

"I personally feel like this is a great opportunity for me to drive to outlying areas to let them know what First Impressions of Routt County is doing," said Stephanie Howle, executive director of First Impressions. "Even though our office is in Steamboat Springs, we are reaching the children and families in outlying areas. The mission of First Impressions is to ensure that children and families are provided resources so that children develop healthy and so that everyone is ready for school."

Preparing children for school often comes down to parents and child care centers. Howle noted that Routt County has a high population of educated parents who work with their children from birth to five years, which helps development.

She also noted that Routt County has established child care centers and providers, giving those parents who cannot stay home with their children a positive place to begin education and socialization.

Tami Havener, executive director of Discovery Learning Center at the Family Development Center, stood on a playground Thursday while the preschool and kindergarten students played soccer or made pies in the sand box. The children were in recess mode, but the teachers were still educating them about responsibility, caring for others and being kind to friends.

"That platform you build with your child in the early years really will impact them as they get into pre-adolescence and adolescence," Havener said. "Their moral and character development is in place by the time they are 6."

First Impressions and Discovery Learning Center both seek to prepare children for school beyond kindergarten, but child care experts, including Dr. Dana Fitzgerald of Pediatrics of Steamboat, agree parents play a pivotal role in child development.

Havener offered her list of the top-five things parents could do with their children during their youngest years. First, read with your children even when they are too young to understand the words. Havener estimated young children learn 15 new words a day.

"The kids who are most successful in school are the kids who have a higher vocabulary when they start school," Havener said.

The list continues with playing with your child but following his or her lead, singing with your child, providing your child with physical affection and keeping the knowledge that you are the parent and your child is the child.

"Take that responsibility seriously," Havener said. "Being a parent is the biggest thing you can do. If you have done all the great things you can do in those first years, the rest of your years as a child-rearing parent are so much easier."

But mental and emotional preparation is just one facet of child development. Physically, parents should be paying attention to their young children, and Fitzgerald suggests parents use professionals as assistants, which the American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests.

"There are specific developmental guidelines we like to see with each check," she said. "When I talk to parents, every time I see a child, I tell them what I'm looking for to really get a grasp on how the child is developing as a whole."

Fitzgerald said the recommended wellness checks are at 2 weeks, 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18 months and 2, 3 and 4 years of age. Development progresses quickly during infancy and the toddler years. Many children will progress the same as others their age, but others won't, and early identification of delays is critical, Fitzgerald said.

"It's good for parents to be educated about appropriate milestones with children," she added. "If parents have issues, do bring them up sooner rather than later."

This month, First Impressions is holding an expo and a meeting, among other activities, to educate parents and provide social outlets for children.

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