Early Sprouts: Growing Great Gardeners

By Kristie Thorson

There is much more ‘being planted’ in this backyard then simple seeds and seedlings.  These Minnesota children, along with their family child care provider, are also developing a perennial love of gardening, and with that, a desire to always eat their veggies!

Taking turns watering the garden is a favorite activity.

It’s all part of Think Small’s Early Sprouts program – a hands-on curriculum which teaches children about healthy eating and guides family child care providers through planting, gathering and serving nutritious foods in their programs.

“Early Sprouts is focused on giving providers experience and knowledge around adding a garden to their program,” said Rochelle Mateffy, an early childhood coach at Think Small.

Thanks to the generous support of the Cargill, Think Small is able to offer the Early Sprouts program to providers in the Twin Cities area at no cost.  Family child care providers attend training classes and then they work with an Early Childhood Coach from Think Small to incorporate a garden into their family child care setting.  This past planting season, twelve child care providers participated in the program.  There were four from St. Paul, four from Minneapolis, one from Brooklyn Center and one from Brooklyn Park.

The children participate in the full garden experience from planting to harvesting.

“For the kids, the focus of this program is to give them the garden to table experience,” said Mateffy. “To teach them where their food comes from and also give them an opportunity to try these vegetables.”

Family child care provider, Wendy Prokosch, harvests green beans with one of the kids.

Family child care provider, Wendy Prokosch, owns and operates Lil’ Pro Family Child Care, a four-star Parent Aware rated program in Brooklyn Park.

“I have a lot of picky eaters and I was hoping Early Sprouts would give them more exposure and because of the ownership in the process that they’d actually experiment a little bit more,” said Prokosch.  “And it worked!  They are trying things that they normally would not even try.”

To see the Early Sprouts program in action, check out this video from Lil’ Pro Family Child Care.

Early Education Spotlight – Here We Grow

By: Marie Huey (Video by Kristie Thorson)

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in child care and preschool settings across Minnesota. From innovative early learning programs to parent perspectives on what works, check out the Early Education Spotlight for unique examples of Minnesota’s early learning successes.

Here We Grow Early Childhood Center near Mankato, MN, features a large garden.

Bugs are a perennial favorite for kids at Here We Grow. There are plenty of grasshoppers to chase in the garden. Water exploration is also a highlight, and several pumps are stationed around the outdoor play area.

The nature-based early childhood center, located in Mankato, contains many opportunities for children to learn and grow outside. Owner and Director Elizabeth Bangert wrote the curriculum and designed the space for this Four Star Parent Aware rated program.

Here We Grow sits on two acres of land.

The Reggio-inspired curriculum means children direct the learning. Rather than set unit topics and lengths, Here We Grow has provocations based on children’s interests. This year a one week provocation about the human body turned into seven weeks. One of the children’s parents, a physician, came in to talk about wound care. The kids explored functions of white and red blood cells, with help from their teachers, of course.

Because children spend most of their time outside, they have plenty of opportunity to interact with other children and talk. Parents are amazed at how quickly their child’s vocabulary expands at Here We Grow. The outdoors is also a perfect setting to develop gross motor skills. Running, jumping, climbing, digging, and splashing are just a few of the activities encouraged by the play area.

Continue reading Early Education Spotlight – Here We Grow

Small Talks – Talk to Me: How Early Conversations Impact a Child’s Life

Small Talks features leaders who will share key insights on early childhood education and discuss innovative solutions to early learning issues in Minnesota.

By Kristie Thorson

Talk to Me: How Early Conversations Impact a Child’s Life was the topic of the first Think Small Small Talks event which took place August 15, 2017, at the University of Minnesota’s Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center in Minneapolis.  The panel presentation and discussion focused on closing the word gap in Minnesota through simple practices, strategic partnerships, and innovative research.

Scott McConnell, Educational Psychology professor at the University of Minnesota was one of the presenters.  His research focuses primarily on preschool-aged children, and the skills and competencies that will enable them to learn and participate in school and other settings.  His work includes implementation and evaluation of LENA Start, a program which focuses on increasing interactive talk with children because it has been proven to be a key factor in early brain development.

“Families talk more, kids talk more.  Families talk less, kids talk less,” McConnell said.

Click below to watch some video highlights from the first Small Talks event.

Continue reading Small Talks – Talk to Me: How Early Conversations Impact a Child’s Life

West Central Minnesota Child Care Providers Benefit from Forgivable Loans

The Policies in Play series takes a closer look at the recently passed state legislative policies that affect early care and education. We work with partners to find out what these policies look like in action and how they impact Minnesota children and families.

By Marie Huey, Civic Engagement Specialist

Like many communities across the state and especially in Greater Minnesota, the West Central region is experiencing a child care shortage.  West Central Initiative (WCI) serves the counties of Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse, and Wilkin, and is the area designated as Minnesota’s Economic Development Region IV.  Child care providers are leaving the field for a variety of reasons, from low compensation to reaching retirement age, making infant care in many areas especially difficult to find.

Because WCI heard from their region that improving access to child care was crucially important, they decided to “flip the switch” on financial supports to the field.  When the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced the Request for Proposal for Greater Minnesota child care grants, WCI was ready to apply.  Greg Wagner, Business and Economic Development Director at WCI, spoke with me to explain the process and impact on child care providers in the area.

Continue reading West Central Minnesota Child Care Providers Benefit from Forgivable Loans

Free Early Childhood Text Messaging Program Offered to Minnesota Parents

Child Care Providers Can Meet Parent Aware Requirement by Encouraging Families to Sign Up

Woodbury parent Amy Raleigh with her daughter Fiona.

When Woodbury parent Amy Raleigh heads to the store with her 4-year old daughter Fiona, she has a grocery list in one hand and her mobile phone in the other.  A busy mom who is constantly on the go, Raleigh uses text messages sent by Think Small ParentPowered Texts to turn ordinary situations into early learning experiences.

“These texts are helpful reminders to use everyday activities as learning opportunities with my daughter,” said Raleigh.  “They do a great job of not only giving me ideas, but also explaining how these activities are helping Fiona get ready for kindergarten.”

Think Small ParentPowered Texts is a FREE program that provides families with fun facts and easy tips to help build a child’s school readiness skills.  Parents who sign-up will receive text messages developed by researchers offering suggestions on ways to promote their child’s social-emotional learning, increase motor and language skills, and improve overall health development.  Continue reading Free Early Childhood Text Messaging Program Offered to Minnesota Parents

Seven Reasons to be Optimistic About Early Learning in Minnesota

By Todd Otis

  1. The benefits of giving children access to high-quality early learning have been proven beyond a doubt. Nobody has been able to dispute that targeted investment in quality early learning provides the single best public return on investment claims made by respected economists.
  2. Minnesota has a rich history of commitment to quality education for all its citizens. Minnesotans from every region, of every religion, and of every political perspective place a supreme value on education. It is part of our DNA and is the foundation of our quality of life.
  3. Early learning as a public issue has gained tremendous momentum in the past two decades. Both “grass tops” and “grass roots” citizens have embraced the issue. State funding for early learning has increased more than $400 million in the past seven years.
  4. While there are differences of opinion about how best to invest in early learning, this issue has not been contaminated by partisanship the way other public issues have been. Policy-makers of good will have shown a capacity to come together and keep supporting more investment.
  5. The voices of parents and early learning professionals are growing louder and more effective. The issue is catching fire and more and more adults are becoming the voices for children. From Worthington to Duluth and from Moorhead to Winona the tide of support is rising.
  6. Coalition work remains robust and unity within the movement continues to be valued. Start Early Funders Coalition joined hands with the Minnesota’s Future coalition to create MinneMinds. Leaders from diverse communities created Voices and Choices. Other coalitions continue to strengthen the movement. We are making progress on many fronts, together.
  7. YOU will make a difference. If you have read this far you obviously care about providing access to quality early learning for all of our children. YOU matter and need to be heard. As Margaret Meade, the great anthropologist, said years ago:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”


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Todd Otis is Vice President of External Relations at Think Small.  Founder and President of Ready 4 K, Otis has over 30 years experience in public affairs and communications.  A former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives (1979-1990), he also chaired the state D.F.L party.  From 1994 to 2001, he was a public affairs consultant in early childhood and the environment.  Otis has an A.B. from Harvard University and an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.

Early Learning Investment – Turn Up the Volume!

By Todd Otis

The early childhood movement has come a long way in the past twenty years, and has a long way to go.

The public now understands the importance of early care and education both for a child’s educational success and to assure a future skilled, prosperous workforce. It now understands that public investment in quality early learning is a valid and important policy priority. A majority of people polled are even willing to pay higher taxes, if the taxes are used to improve early learning.

Todd Otis

Quality early learning is vastly under-resourced; there is far too little money in the system to provide parents the choices they deserve or maintain the quality workforce our children need.  As a result, far too many of our youngest children are being cheated, pure and simple.

At the very time when young families have the least amount of money, they are forced to pay $10-12,000 directly out of their pockets per child, and many families simply do not have that kind of money. Whereas at least 75% of K-12 education (public and private) is paid for by public sources and 25% by families, those numbers are reversed for early care and education. Most families simply cannot afford to pay for the quality early learning their kids deserve. Continue reading Early Learning Investment – Turn Up the Volume!

Early Education Spotlight: Little Wonders Daycare

By: Marie Huey (Video by Kristie Thorson)

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in child care and preschool settings across Minnesota. From innovative early learning programs to parent perspectives on what works, check out the Early Education Spotlight for unique examples of Minnesota’s early learning successes.

Brenda Novack has been a child care professional for more than 20 years.

Licensed family child care programs often make special adaptations to meet the needs of their community. Little Wonders Daycare in Waterville, MN, is a perfect example of this. Owner Brenda Novack knows her families well, and she tailors her high-quality program to fit their schedules.

Brenda is Two Star Parent Aware rated, and she is working toward Three Stars. Before starting her family child care, she worked at a child care center. That experience gave her ideas about how she wanted her own program to look, and the Parent Aware process has helped her polish the way she runs the show.

Continue reading Early Education Spotlight: Little Wonders Daycare

Celebrating the Debra S. Fish Early Childhood Library!

 Did you know Minnesota’s best resources for early childhood professionals are available FREE to you? 

The Debra S. Fish Library contains the most current and comprehensive collection of resources for early childhood professionals.

April 9 – 15 is National Library Week!  What a great opportunity to explore a  hidden gem of early learning materials right here in our state.

The Debra S. Fish Early Childhood Library, with locations in Little Canada (St. Paul) & Minneapolis, contains the most current and comprehensive collection of resources for early childhood professionals in Minnesota. As one of St. Paul Public Library’s (SPPL) branches, our resources are easily accessible to anyone in the state of Minnesota.

Continue reading Celebrating the Debra S. Fish Early Childhood Library!

Policy Hour: Power to the Profession Initiative

Policy Hour presenters were MnAEYC-MnSACA’s Kathleen O’Donnell and Sara Benzkofer.

Early education is in the spotlight now. That was the message from Kathleen O’Donnnell, Executive Director, and Sara Benzkofer, Director of Policy and Communications, of MnAEYC-MnSACA. The April Policy Hour presenters are from the state affiliate of the National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). They talked about the Power to the Profession Initiative out of NAEYC and how the recent attention to early childhood development and education presents both challenges and opportunities to support and advance the profession. Continue reading Policy Hour: Power to the Profession Initiative