Players from the Willmar Stingers summer baseball team will read "Flat Stanley at Bat" to hundreds of preschoolers before Saturday's game as part of a campaign to increase literacy and the number of children who enter kindergarten ready to learn.
The 4th annual Books-n-Baseball program is one of the more creative ideas to boost kindergarten readiness in Minnesota. The Stingers, part of the Northwoods League that features collegiate players, provided 600 tickets, which were distributed to families with preschoolers at the local libraries, a preschool and other locations in Willmar.
All children who show up for Saturday's game will receive a copy of the Flat Stanley book, and then join a group featuring one player who will read the book and then another who will show the pictures. After the game, the children will be able to return to the field and run the bases.
Getting books in the hands of preschoolers and their parents, especially parents living in poverty, has been a major focus in recent years. A top preschool that is part of the Northside Achievement Zone, which is increasing kindergarten readiness in low-income sections of north Minneapolis, sends new books home each week with instructions on how parents should read them and ask their kids questions about them.
But at an early childhood forum in St. Paul this week, experts noted how the need is equally great in rural Minnesota. A Willmar representative noted that 56.4 percent of elementary school students in that district qualified for free and reduced lunch -- a poverty indicator that is tied to kindergarten readiness.
The Willmar Early Childhood Initiative arranges a similar reading event to Books-n-Baseball at the local fire station each fall. The selected books for the firehouse event are related to safety and the books for the Stingers event are generally related to baseball. That is somewhat challenging in the fourth year of the baseball event, because there are only so many books for preschoolers about the game, said Jodi Wambeke, a coordinator of the initiative.
"I think next year," she said, "we'll go back to 'Froggy Plays Baseball.'"