Joined by the stars of a popular children's television show, Mayor Betsy Hodges formally launched a new early childhood initiative on Tuesday at the People Serving People shelter downtown. 

Standing in front of a Metro Transit bus covered in an ad for the "Talking is Teaching" campaign, the mayor said the city can help break down racial and economic disparities by ensuring that all children are getting the same opportunities to learn at an early age. She said studies have found that by age three, poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers.

Hodges said parents and other adults can help make up that gap by talking with babies and young children about anything and everything that's happening around them: the bus, the trip to the grocery store, the story in a book.

"Here's how we make our kids smarter: We talk to them, we read to them, we sing to them," she said. "Period."

The city will spend $50,000 on advertising and outreach campaigns for the initiative, including bus ads, billboards and tote bags stuffed with information for parents. Several nonprofit groups will offer books and hold gatherings for parents to share the city's message.

Outside organizations, including the Clinton Foundation and the Opportunity Institute, are providing help, as they have done with similar campaigns in other cities. 


After a news conference, Hodges sat down with a group of children -- and the costumed stars of the PBS show Peg + Cat -- to read. She said earlier that parents can help build kids' language skills and help them prepare for school even if they lack English or reading skills themselves.

"You don't even have to know how to read to a kid," she said. "(It helps) even if you're sitting with the book describing what's happening."