First to arrive is 4-year-old Natasha Beckerbauer.
She immediately plops down in front of the cart full of goodies.
But these goodies aren’t food. They’re picture books for preschool readers.
Natasha knows she’ll get to pick out five of them to take home with her.
It’s one of the best things about coming to a Millard Public Schools Circle of Friends Preschool Story Time.
Natasha and her mother, Jacqueline, are soon joined in the Neihardt Elementary School library by Gina Wiitanen and her two children, Taylor, 3, and Abigail, 18 months.
And that’s it for this particular Wednesday, although a month earlier there had been about a dozen kids. It’s like that sometimes, especially at the beginning of the year, says Linda Walters, who leads the story time at eight Millard schools.
She’s a preschool-family liaison, certified media specialist and parent educator for the Millard Public Schools.
The Circle of Friends story time is designed to give 3- and 4-year-olds and their families first contact with a school setting and to introduce them to the wonder of books.
“It’s a chance to get books into the hands of families,” Walters says. “We want to engage families before the kids come to school.”
Studies have shown that children who are exposed to books and are read aloud to early in life become better students when they are older, she said.
Walters has been part of the preschool story-time program since it began at Rockwell Elementary 12 years ago. It was so popular the school district tried to figure out a way to expand the program.
It wasn’t until 2009, when the district received stimulus money, that the program could purchase more books and move into more elementary schools.
Attendance can vary widely. Good-weather days, such as the day we visited, often mean fewer children because parents can let them play outside when the weather is nice.
“We always think bad weather will keep them away,” Walters says. “But more always come when it’s raining or snowing.”
The story times are open to any preschooler in the Millard Public Schools. Walters leads the program at Neihardt, Rockwell, Holling Heights, Sandoz, Cody, Bryan, Norris and Disney. Andrea Kidd is the leader at Wheeler Elementary.
Although other school districts in the area have preschool curriculum, which includes reading times, none except Millard offers a story time that is open to any preschool child in the district. Papillion-La Vista Public Schools tried a similar program to Millard’s but discontinued it this year because of a lack of interest, said district spokeswoman Annette Eyman.
Millard parents are interested. And Walters isn’t upset by the small turnout on this day — it makes no difference if there are three or 23 children.
She starts by having the children do some hand exercises. “But don’t put your fingers in your mouth,” she cautions.
“That would be yucky,” Taylor responds.
Since it’s October, Walters has come up with a Halloween/fall theme for their time together. She starts by reading “Mouse’s First Halloween” aloud. She moves quickly into having the children sing a song (“Five Little Pumpkins”) then reads “Fall Leaves Fall.” She leads another song before reading one last story, “The Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything.”
By this time, Abigail is fidgeting. So Walters quickly asks the children about things that scare them — apparently nothing does. Then she has them sing a goodbye song.
Now comes the really fun part, picking out the five books each family wants to take home. They can keep them until the next meeting in November.
It’s important for children to develop a love of reading, but it’s just as important to instill that love of reading in the parents, Walters says. The story times are a way for the parents to learn how to read aloud to their children. “Many of them are nervous about that,” she says.
This is the first year of participating for the Wiitanens. Gina Wiitanen, a fourth-grade teacher who is working part time now, says it fits into her plan to do more “mommy things.”
Jacqueline and Natasha Beckerbauer participated last school year and were eager to continue this year. “She loves it,” Jacqueline says of Natasha. “She loves the fact that she gets to pick out books. She feels like a big kid, more like her older sister.”