STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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These playgrounds are designed to get kids and parents talking

Kid hanging upside down at playground
Virginia State Parks / Flickr CC /

By the time they are just 18 months old, kids from low-income families and those from higher-income families display significant differences in their vocabularies.

Studies suggest that by age three, poor children hear roughly 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers. It's a disparity that researchers in the early 1990s coined the "word gap."

Basically, poor kids learn, understand and use fewer words. It's something that contributes to the persistent achievement gap we've talked a lotabout here on State of Opportunity.

Experts have proposed lots of different interventions that could help narrow this gap. Things like universal preschool and reading and talking to your baby from birth.

Now, some parks across the country are trying to shrink the word gap in a place where kids spend a lot of time - the playground.

One of these parks is Officer Willie Wilkins Park in Oakland, California. Its playground is equipped with the standard slides and swings. But mixed in among them are white panels decorated with pictures and phrases designed to get people talking.

The panels have prompts and questions about things like food, weather and feelings. And they are there to guide parents in meaningful conversation with their kids. According to The Atlantic:

The basic idea is that parents and other caregivers can use the panels (they’re image-heavy so that parents who aren’t literate themselves can still participate) to spark conversations with their kids while they play. The panels, developed with the help of Goodby Silverstein, the ad agency behind the ubiquitous “got milk?” campaign, don’t get in the way of more traditional rough-and-tumble play.

A playground
Credit Too Small To Fail

The park is a project of Too Small to Fail- a 2013 joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute which was founded " to promote the importance of early brain and language development and to empower parents with tools to talk, read, and sing with their young children from birth." Clinton wrote:

Studies have found that by age four, children in middle and upper class families hear 15 million more words than children in working-class families, and 30 million more words than children in families on welfare. This disparity in hearing words from parents and caregivers translates directly into a disparity in learning words. And that puts our children born with the fewest advantages even further behind. Among those born in 2001, only 48 percent of poor children started school ready to learn, compared to 75 percent of children from middle-income families. The “word gap” is a significant but solvable challenge.

Similar interventions have been shown to increase the amount and quality of conversation, particularly when it comes to low-income families. A 2015 study published in the journal Mind, Brain and Education found placing signs encouraging adult - child dialogue in supermarkets serving low-income neighborhoods significantly increased the number and quality of conversations between adults and kids.

Credit Too Small To Fail

The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for brain development. Every early childhood experience, both good and bad, stimulates connections that will last a lifetime. That’s why it’s so important to build a child’s vocabulary during this window. Carla Keener was an early partner of Too Small to Fail’s work in Oakland. She told The Atlantic:

Too many people still think of young children as “blobs” or “blank slates” that acquire knowledge later. When, in fact, significant and fundamental brain development happens in the first few years of life. I think people are still throwing away those first three, first five years. That’s such a rich, fertile time.

Too Little to Fail's goal is to install 20 of these "Talking is Teaching" playgrounds across the country. And while it's too early to tell the impact of the playground panels, experts are hopeful that they'll get parents engaging early and often with their kids.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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