In a small room at the Pico Union Library on a recent Friday morning, Marissa Gonzalez and her 3-year-old squished gooey, green blobs of colored shaving cream onto big swaths of paper.
Gonzalez is mother of three and she gave up her job as a special education teacher to be at home with her young children. She has been trying to get her youngest child into preschool, but while she waits for a spot, they spend a lot of time together at home. Gonzalez joined this group at the library, called Book Sprouts, as a way to get out and meet other parents and children.
Along the way, she’s also learning some cool projects to help pass the time at home with her son.
“I try, but as a mom what I do at home is different,” Gonzalez said. “I never would have thought to use shaving cream. I mean, wow!”
But the activity was not meant simply to pass the time: more importantly, the painting exercise showed Gonzalez and the other parents that children as young as two can grasp simple color-mixing theory. Squirt some red food coloring with some blue food coloring, add some shaving cream and glue, and presto: purple paint! Squishing the paint onto the paper required fine motor control. And as the children painted, the facilitators pointed out the learning going on.
The hidden lesson of the painting activity demonstrates what makes Book Sprouts different from many daytime parenting gatherings. The group, coordinated by the social service agency Children's Bureau, aims to give parents the skills to bolster their children's development and help close the gaps between children who are enrolled in preschool and those who miss out.
It’s a widespread problem across L.A. County: child care is hard to find. A recent study found that of the 260,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the county, there are only enough licensed preschool seats for 160,000. This means many children may stay home, or are looked after by a neighbor or relative.
And those are the children that Children's Bureau is trying to reach. Its Family Community Enrichment program trains volunteer parents in early childhood basics so they can lead groups like Book Sprouts out in the community.
Genesis Rosa coordinates the Family Enrichment program at Children’s Bureau. When a child is in quality preschool, often parents will be guided by teachers in bolstering their child’s development, Rosa said. But many families have no access to early care experts.
“Understanding what your child can do will allow you as a parent to understand them even more,” Rosa said.
The parent volunteers go through a three-month-long training to become facilitators, covering brain and child development concepts, Rosa said.
It’s a course that Rochelle Cabreros-Flores was eager to take after she attended her first Book Sprouts group with her two children.
She has only been able to patch together part-time preschool through different programs for her older son, who enrolled at a time when the family's income was low enough to qualify for subsidized preschool. But when her husband, a high school English teacher, got a new job and a small pay raise, it pushed the family above the limit for her youngest child to be eligible.
“Let me put it this way,” Cabreros-Flores said, “on paper we’re fancy, we’re like middle class. But in reality [we’re] not. We can get some preschool help but not all of it.”
The income threshold for subsidized preschool as determined by the California Department of Education is $46,896 for a family of four. Her husband now makes above that. Market rate preschool in California is about $8,200 a year, but it runs higher in L.A. County. It's a cost this family cannot afford.
So while she figures out the preschool dilemma, Cabreros-Flores shuttles her boys around to any free kids program she can find. When she heard she could be a facilitator of a Book Sprouts group, Cabreros-Flores signed up.
She attends monthly trainings, usually on a Friday evening, with dinner provided by the Children’s Bureau. For Cabreros-Flores it’s not just a chance to learn, it’s an outing with other moms and a night off from kid-duty.
The painting art project – mix shaving cream with glue and food coloring – was inspired by a project she encountered on the social networking site Pinterest.
Facilitators are given a curriculum to follow and there is an emphasis on reading to children, said the Children's Bureau chief executive officer Alex Morales. “In the neighborhoods here we did a survey and asked parents, 'how many of you read five days a week to your children?' and found out it’s only about 16 percent,” Morales said.
But when they surveyed parents who participated in the weekly groups, that number jumped to 75 percent. “Even with having a program that meets just once a week for two hours, it is changing a daily behavior of something so significant as reading,” Morales said.
Morales believes that even if some magic wand was waved and every kid could be in preschool, a program like this is still critical. It not only educates families about their child’s development, he said, it also builds community.
“In general [we] think of the vulnerable family as a family that needs help, but we never think of them as a family that can someday become the helper,” Morales said.
And that’s precisely what Rochelle Cabreros-Flores feels like she is doing: helping.