Latinas learn to be ‘first teachers’

In an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Latina mothers are learning to be their children’s “first teachers,” reports Sara Neufeld in the Hechinger Report. Then they’re expected to spread the word about early learning by organizing playgroups and classes for their friends, relatives and neighbors.

Laura Barrios (left), leading activities for babies during an educational playgroup with Lorenza Pascual. (Kim Palmer / Hechinger Report)Many Latino immigrants think “their role is to keep their babies safe, clean, well-fed and loved,” say researchers. Parents think learning doesn’t start till kindergarten and happens at school. 

In a 2012 survey, 26 percent of young Latino children had been read to in the previous week, compared with 41 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of whites.  

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is training “early childhood ambassadors.” Most are stay-at-home mothers with limited formal education.

Trainers from Countdown to Kindergarten ran a “two-day workshop focused on easy and affordable activities, from turning toilet paper rolls into imaginary binoculars to helping children write their addresses on a drawing of a house to observing nature and the outdoors.”

Over the summer, the women began weekly playgroups outside their neighborhood YMCA.

One sticky August Tuesday, the playgroup attracted about 40 parents and children. Some embarked on a “wonder walk” around the building, looking for plastic animal and plant figurines placed strategically in the grass and visiting trees they had “adopted” by placing ribbons on them. Others practiced learning shapes and colors by painting potatoes cut into triangles, squares, circles and rectangles. Babies explored puzzles and books spread out on a blanket while older kids worked in a garden. 

Isidra Mena, 31, there with her 2-year-old nephew and 5-year-old daughter, said the children were starting to recognize real vegetables at home because of what the playgroups were teaching them. Rosa Tafoya, 22, who had been coming all summer with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, said the girls were doing better taking turns with each other, and sometimes they were choosing to draw with chalk on the sidewalk instead of playing video games.

Over the winter, the ambassadors helped to run a 10-week class for families with children 5 and under called Abriendo Puertas or “Opening Doors.”

If I ran a foundation, I’d fund the creation of a TV show — maybe a soap opera or telenovela — that would show people parenting well and coping with family problems. How do you read a book aloud to a small child? Not everyone knows. Show ‘em.

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