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Launchpads to Literacy

By Diana Sharp and Megan Diaz
 | Mar 15, 2019
launchpads-literacyWhen you think of community organizations that support literacy, what comes to mind? The library, certainly. But what about zoos and aquariums? Or science museums and performing arts centers? Or the city parks department? These organizations and more have been key partners for Explorers Club, a community-wide summer program for preschoolers and their families operating in Tampa, FL's lowest income neighborhood since 2014.

Through this program, children and their families are not only given free access to these area cultural venues during the summer, but also are engaged in meaningful literacy activities to bring them together as a family, connect them with local resources, and help ensure they are ready for kindergarten.

How we began

In 2012, the YMCA and Champions for Children, a nonprofit provider of family education and child abuse prevention programs in the Tampa Bay region, opened a community learning center called Layla's House in the heart of the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. Approximately 40% of Sulphur Springs residents live below the poverty line, close to double the overall poverty rate of Tampa. Layla's House wanted to offer something special in the summer for families of children ages 0- 5.

At the same time, literacy researchers at RMC Research Corporation were looking for a partner interested in creating a program for supporting the oral language and vocabulary growth of preschool children from economically disadvantaged homes. When the two organizations came together, the adventures began.

Together, we approached the educational directors at different cultural venues in Tampa. We explained how "school readiness" meant more than knowing numbers and letters. We described research about how oral language and vocabulary need to be strengthened early, and how these skills are key to literacy success in kindergarten and beyond. We also described the important role of building children's knowledge and interests around rich topics such as zoo animals, sea creatures, outer space, and even children's own neighborhoods, so that families could have extended conversations and read more about whatever their children found most fascinating.

We called the approach Fascinate Forward: looking for things that fascinate a child, then using that fascination to move learning forward. The cultural organizations responded generously and enthusiastically, and Explorers Club was born.

Visits to the cultural venues are the highlights of Explorers Club activities, but the real power comes from wrapping each visit with layers of fun, intentional learning support. Families meet at Layla's House two mornings a week for activities themed to the places they will visit. Each learning theme takes place over two weeks. The activities at the community center include music and dance, storytimes, crafts, and learning centers, with a heavy emphasis on helping families talk with their children in ways that will support children's learning about each theme before, during, and after the venue visits.

For most of the venue trips, families have complete flexibility regarding when they will visit. The family members are the primary learning facilitators during the trips, using what they learned at Layla's House to engage their children in conversations about what they see. The partnership with the venues has grown over the years. In addition to providing free tickets, venue staff come to Layla's House, bringing interactive presentations and intriguing items-including live animals.

This past year, venue staff began lending Layla's House sets of items for a Curiosity Table that was added to the learning centers. For example, the zoo and aquarium lent us real and replica samples of hair, bones, teeth, eggs, feathers-even a tarantula exoskeleton. At the Curiosity Table, children and their families can see, touch, and learn about the items, guided by a university student volunteer.

Diana Sharp, an ILA member since 1993, is a cognitive psychologist and literacy activist in the Tampa Bay area. working as a senior research associate at RMC Research Corporation.

Megan Diaz is an undergraduate at the University of South Florida and will be pursuing a masters in speech language pathology.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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