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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

Thank you, National Reading Month.

Because of you, I got to start my week off in the polar bear room, a colorfully-decorated place with large, plastic connecting blocks, play dough and — most importantly — Heather, ZaMonica, Landon and Raylan.

Let’s be honest, when I showed up at the Community Action Partnership’s Head Start day care center, I was no match for the play dough and connecting blocks. But I had a book, which gave me some cred.

We sat on the carpet Monday morning and I read “Llama Llama Wakey Wake,” a tale by Anna Dewdney about a young llama's morning exploits.

It’s been awhile since I was the center of attention with 2-year-olds, although I may be slightly overstating my status in the polar bear room.

And it’s been years since I could recite Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” and Dr. Seuss’  “The Foot Book” from memory, when “Corduroy Bear” and “Winnie The Pooh” and the adventures of the Berenstain Bears were the stuff of my daily life.

So it was fun to be back there, if just for a short time, to remind me that while I loved the nighttime reading ritual when my kids were young, it also played an important role for the developing brains in our household.  

The folks who work with kids every day know this well, which is why I was at the day care center — along with a host of other volunteers — to help the Community Action Partnership kick off the next part of its Head Start book campaign. 

The Community Action Partnership is the recipient of federal Head Start funds in Lincoln, which it uses to fund two full-day day care centers and home-based programs.

The campaign already has raised $5,700 to send home one book each month for five months with each of the 225 children in the day care centers. They still need to raise $3,000 to do the same with the 132 children they serve in home-based programs and 34 children in a Wahoo school program.

The campaign — similar to many other reading programs in schools and community organizations around the city — coincides with National Reading Month, which is intended to remind us adults just how important reading is to young children.

Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics formally noted this by adopting a policy encouraging pediatricians to remind parents to read daily to their children.

It recognized the importance of early brain development in a child's first three years, as well as the role such daily rituals plays in cementing relationships between parents and children.  

The National Center for Education Statistics found that 26 percent of children read to three to four times a week by a family member recognized all the letters of the alphabet, compared with 14 percent of those read to less than that.

Maybe you've heard of the 30 million-word gap? 

It came from a 20-year-old study that tracked how many words young children from upper-, middle- and low-income families heard at home. 

Researchers tracked 42 families, and their results were extrapolated to predict that by age 3, children of professionals would hear about 45 million words, compared with only 13 million for a child in poverty. Thus the 30 million-word gap.

Subsequent studies have found somewhat smaller gaps — and it's important to note it's not just about reading books.

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The type of interaction is important — back-and-forth conversations are better than one-way, and positive interactions better than negative. And some studies found lower-income families have more conversations with children than high-income, and it happens in various ways, including playing games.

Bottom line: Playing games, singing, reading books. They all make a difference.

It's why the Nebraska Education Association kicks off each March with Read Across America Day on March 2, in honor of Dr. Seuss' birthday.

Schools take part in all sorts of ways. This year, for instance, Educare, the preschool that partners with the Buffett Foundation, Lincoln Public Schools and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, invited local dignitaries and police officers to read "Green Eggs and Ham."

It's not just in March. For the past two decades, the Lincoln Education Association has spearheaded Harvest of Books, a campaign that’s sent more than 160,000 new books home with every first-grader in the city’s public and private schools.

Lincoln City Libraries is in the midst of a campaign to encourage parents to read 15 minutes a day to their children. And LPS and the city libraries just hosted their second African-American read-in. 

It all boils down to this, really. You should always listen to Dr. Seuss, who offers spot-on advice on nearly every subject, including the benefits of reading with our eyes open.

"And when I keep them open, I can read with much more speed. You have to be a speedy reader 'cause thereʼs so, so much to read!" 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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