BY JANET MANDELSTAM
Those interpretative signs along Bloomington’s Clear Creek Trail aren’t there just to point out the wonders of nature. They’re part of United Way of Monroe County’s Born Learning initiative, which helps parents and other caregivers support early childhood development.
There are ten signs along the 300-foot Play Path, and each prompts parents to interact with children in a different way. One stop, for example, has colored shapes painted on the ground, and the sign suggests asking a child to notice the difference between, say, a circle and a rectangle or to stand in the square. Another has painted letters, and the sign suggests sounding out the letters and thinking of words that start with A, B, or C. Another has numbers on hopscotch squares. Activities such as these help preschoolers get ready for reading and math. Other stops promote physical activity, storytelling, and awareness of the natural world.
The Play Path “encourages communication between parent and child,” says Barry Lessow, United Way executive director, and shows adults how to turn everyday activities like a walk in the park into fun learning opportunities for young children. “It’s a way to combine physical activity and intellectual exploration.”
Supporting learning in young children is important, Lessow says, because “we know that 80 percent of brain development takes place in the first five years.” The path, he says, “is designed to help make sure that kids are engaged in exploring, observing, perceiving.” By offering activities that build language and thinking skills, the path “helps kids prepare for school, for life, for success.”
Even babies can benefit from the play path “if parents stop and interact with them,” says Jennifer Hottell, United Way’s community engagement director. “Even though the child is in the pre-literacy phase, recognizing letters and shapes is important. It’s never too early to start.” And, she adds, “This is something parents can do with their children and not have to spend money.”
The Play Path is a joint venture of United Way, Bloomington Parks and Recreation, and Monroe Smart Start. The paved path opened last summer at the West That Road trailhead. It is accessible to strollers, bicycles, and wheelchairs and, says Hottell, “has become popular with ‘mommy walking groups.’”