Jeremy Olson writes about children and families, and is an overscheduled father of two. His blog tackles the best and worst of parenting, families, health and love. He wants to hear from you - what's going on in your house?
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.'"
First read of a new Reading is Fundamental survey alarmed me, in that only 33 percent of parents reported reading daily to their children ages 8 and younger and 50 percent reported that their children spent more time with visual media than books.
But a closer look showed silver linings, at least, in that 87 percent of parents are currently reading to their children -- and that on average they read to their children five times a week.
I'm not sure which statistic astonishes me more, that 13 percent of parents are currently not reading at all to their kids, or that 33 percent claim they do it daily. Daily, really? I salute you. I know I certainly have missed nights when the weather was finally nice or a youth soccer game ran late or the siren of a late-night family run for ice cream proved too strong.
But enough about my inconsistent parenting! The Reading is Fundamental advocacy group released the results of the 1,000-parent survey Thursday in conjunction with Macy's, which is giving out coupons to customers who donate $3 to a child literacy campaign.
Other interesting findings from the survey, conducted by Harris Interactive:
-- Nightly readership to children eight and younger was more common among younger parents: (39 percent among parents 18 to 34), (30 percent among parents 35 to 44), and (28 percent among parents 45 and older).
-- 51 percent of parents reading to their kids estimate the amount of time for each session at 10 to 19 minutes. The amount of time spent reading increased by the age of the child. (I suppose there are only so many times you can read Barnyard Dance over and over to your toddler.)
-- 55 percent of parents reported impediments to reading with their children, with the most common reasons being not enough time in the day (35%), child not interested (14%), not enough money to buy books (7%), limited access to library (4%), parent not interested (2%), and other reasons (5%).
Minneapolis economist Rob Grunewald is known for the influential paper he co-authored a decade ago showing that public investments in structured early childhood education have enormous economic payoffs down the line. But on Tuesday, when he accepted an award for his advocacy of early childhood education, Grunewald took a tangent when he stressed the value of also getting children outside for more unstructured time to explore and create.
Citing a book called the Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature, Grunewald said children need more unstructured time outside to run and hide and explore and "play in the dirt."
"The outdoors is a natural classroom for childhood development. But children today ... don't get to spend enough time outdoors " said Grunewald, an economist from the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. He received an award Tuesday from a local advocacy group known as the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children & Minnesota's Future. The event was held at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Grunewald doesn't have children but said the value of getting kids outdoors was passed to him by his grandparents, who took him camping for days when he was only six years old. The Coyote book is filled with ways to explore the outdoors and play games that foster creativity and a connection to the natural world. (The ideas obviously differentiate from the structured time that many children experience outdoors through school and club sports.)
"When you get outdoors, there are so many sensory experiences that are available to you," he said.
This week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the ability to patent naturally-occurring DNA and genetic information could impact the decisions of individuals to receive the BRCA genetic tests for breast cancer risks, according to University of Minnesota experts.
The ruling ultimately prevented Myriad Genetics from holding exclusive rights to the genetic tests for the BRCA mutations that predict elevated risks of breast cancer. At least one competitor has already pledged to offer a competing test at a third of the price. That would bring the out-of-pocket cost from more than $3,000 to closer to $1,000.
Mary Ahrens, a genetic counseling expert at the U of M, said patients struggle with many issues when deciding whether to receive the genetic test, including the psychological consequences of knowing the result and the emotional hardship of spreading information about positive tests to relatives. But those difficult issues can be irrelevant for them until they know if health insurance is covering the cost.
"Lets put it this way," she said. "If an insurance company does not cover the cost, so the patient is out $4,000, that trumps everything."
Ahrens and the U's Dr. Richard King said insurance coverage is fairly broad for women who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer. Coverage remains variable of their relatives or of people with significant family histories of breast cancer.
If the out-of-pocket cost is slashed by half or more following this Supreme Court ruling, Ahrens said that could increase public interest in testing. She noted the cost is already greatly reduced (around $500) for relatives of women who have tested positive for a BRCA mutation.
"Once they identify what mutation in the family is associated with cancer," she said, "it's very easy to go in and test somebody for that mutation."
A key issue following the ruling will be whether insurance companies expand the conditions under which they cover testing for the BRCA mutations.
"Anything that is over a couple hundred dollars is expensive" for patients, Ahrens said. "The big issue is going to be insurance coverage."
A new Sesame Street production, with backing from the White House, is seeking to help preschool and grade-school children deal with the emotional trauma of having parents who are incarcerated. The new, national campaign has a local angle in that the Washington County jail will be an early test site and a University of Minnesota researcher will be studying whether it is effective.
The U's Rebecca Shlafer will conduct a comparative study of children entering the Washington County jail who view the Sesame DVD and other materials prior to seeing their incarcerated parents, and of children who don't. Shlafer said there has been little recognition until recently about the impact on young children of having parents who are incarcerated. They sometimes wonder if they are to blame, or feel badly because they might hear at school how only bad people ever end up in jail.
"Sometimes children in these circumstances have feeling of guilt like maybe this is their fault," said Shlafer, who was at the White House today for the announcement of the new campaign.
Creators from the New York-based Sesame Workshop hope the approachable Muppet-like characters in the materials will help children deal with the anxiety and stress of seeing their parents behind bars. The orange, pink and blue Muppet characters also remove any racial stigma from the issue for children.
Shlafer said the campaign will also provide helpful tips to parents and caregivers at home about how to talk honestly with their children about the issue.
"Caregivers actually will lie about where the incarcerated parent is," she said. "So grandma may say 'oh, mom's off at college' when actually she is at the Shakopee women's prison and will be for the next three years. One of the things that Sesame has done here is talk about (that) honesty is important in talking to your child about her parent's incarceration. It can be difficult, it can be scary, but here are some ways that you can approach this topic."
Children often suffer in many ways when a parent is incarcerated. The loss of family income often puts their families into poverty. Shlafer said there might be a link to recidivism, so it is important to help the children of incarcerated parents so they don't one day become criminals themselves.
Washington County Jail assistant administrator Roger Heinen said just entering a prison or jail can cause anxiety for young children, who have to put their belongings in lockers, then pass through metal detectors, then pass through metal doors only to see incarcerated parents through bulletproof glass. Heinen, whose own children watch Sesame Street, said it makes sense to use these lovable characters to help children deal with these hardships.
77 percent of parents believe they have talked with their kids about proper online behavior, according to a national survey, but only 44 percent of youth ages 10 to 23 would agree. Apparently, a lot of that sage advice against sexting and cyberbullying is going in one ear and out the other!
Maybe it's because I just imposed a no texting/snapchatting/calling rule on my son's baseball team of 11- and 12-year-old boys during practices and games, but this survey of more than 1,000 kids and 1,000 parents intrigued me. Do parents really know how much time their kids are committing to social media and online communications?
The youth in the survey (funded by software security provider McAfee) were much more aware than parents of the dangers of posting sensitive information such as their social security numbers or the identities of who they are dating. Yet they were still more likely to post this kind of information without their parents knowing it.
Seven in 10 surveyed kids admitted to hiding online activities from their parents through a variety of methods such as using password-protected mobile phones. Two-thirds of surveyed kids had posted photos of themselves online, but only half of their parents knew that. A third of youth posted intimate or sensitive personal details of themselves online but little more than one in 10 parents were aware of that type of online activity.