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Harvard-based Boston Basics localized to impact Kent County children


Wendy Bronkema sat on the carpet with Heather Olson and her children, Kaydon, 3 ½, and Ellie, 15 months. They spent the next hour playing, singing, counting and talking.

Bronkema emphasized grouping, comparing and counting objects — “How many windows?” “How many doors?” — as early math activities to do with Kaydon. She encouraged Heather to read books to Ellie that have repetition and rhyming.

The Basics

  • Maximize love, manage stress
  • Talk, sing and point
  • Count, group and compare
  • Explore through movement and play
  • Read and discuss stories

Source: Success Basics

Then, with cardboard and sticky circles, Bronkema and Kaydon made a board game. Kaydon helped apply sticker-dots, counting with Bronkema as he went. They discussed colors and the words “start” and “finish,” which Bronkema drew in big letters.

“This is the really cool thing about playing homemade games,” said Bronkema, a parent educator for Kent ISD Bright Beginnings, a program that promotes early development of young children by supporting and engaging parents and caregivers.

Later, Olson read a favorite book to Ellie, and everyone sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” with the children adding impromptu dance moves. They wrapped things up with a goodbye song.

“It’s stuff people already do to some degree, but they don’t realize how important it is. Once they realize how important it is, they become more intentional about it. Very few people do the basics to the degree they could.” — Ron Ferguson, professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and creator of The Boston Basics

Bronkema leads one-hour sessions twice monthly at the Sparta family’s home. As they play, Kaydon and Ellie are learning through reinforcement of Success Basics, simple ways to help children from birth to age 3 develop skills that impact future success.

The initiative includes an interactive website with videos and testimonials.

Success Basics are based on Boston Basics, developed by professor Ron Ferguson, who recently spoke in Kent County

Researched-backed basics

Bronkema weaves recommendations from Ron Ferguson, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, into her home visits. Ferguson’s work The Boston Basics, from which Success Basics is localized, focuses on everyday ways parents can interact with their children to best aid learning. Nurturing Parent Power, a workgroup from Great Start Collaborative, localized Ferguson’s Boston Basics for Kent County.

“There’s a ton of brain development that happens in those first few years of life,” Ferguson said, while visiting Kent District Library for a recent presentation to librarians. “A 2-year-old’s neural network looks more like an adult’s than a younger child. The brain is 80 percent of its adult size by 3-years-old.”

Focusing on those pivotal developmental years can keep gaps from developing between children, which are evident among racial groups and based on economic status.

Ellie takes a seat, book in hand

“We know the kindergarten readiness gaps are pretty large, so a lot of the achievement gaps we worry about later are already in evidence by the time kids start school,” Ferguson said.

“We view those first few years as a huge opportunity that is sometimes a missed opportunity. We want parents and others who care for young children to know what a great opportunity they have to help shape this child’s future by using the basics from the very beginning.”

Each basic is deeply research-based, he said, and all children can benefit.

“It’s stuff people already do to some degree, but they don’t realize how important it is. Once they realize how important it is, they become more intentional about it. Very few people do the basics to the degree they could.”

Kaydon checks out some circle stickers, perfect for counting

Impacting Kent County children

Kent ISD early childhood programs Bright Beginnings and Early On and the Great Start Readiness Program, which includes 190 preschool classrooms in Kent County, 69 of which Kent ISD oversees, are using Success Basics during home visits and as resources for parent information sessions.

“We know parents are our kids’ first teachers, and so if they can provide the foundation coming into preschool, we have the resources to give them what they need to be ready for kindergarten,” said Ashley Karsten, Great Start Readiness Program supervisor.

“It’s all about the foundational skills they come in with. Those five basics they emphasize are so important from infancy all the way to preschool.”

Kaydon Olson, 3 ½, holds up a die he was playing with and using to count

GSRP parents receive a bag, handouts and magnet, all with information about the basics, Karsten said. Teachers are encouraged to give parents school calendars with ideas for using the basics every day with children. Videos provide easy access to tips and stories about parenting and fitting in the basics. Teachers also reach parents through private Facebook pages to share tips.

“It’s so easy, and the ideas are given to them…They are five-minute or two-minute activities that are really doable,” Karsten said.

Olson said Bright Beginnings has helped her tremendously. She said Kaydon and Ellie look forward to Bronkema’s visits, and she has learned ways to help her children learn important skills and track milestones, with activities that include Success Basics.

“I love it. I don’t know what I would do without it.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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