Just as parents are children’s first teachers, they are also their children’s first playmates. And both roles are inextricably connected because learning lies at the center of them both. Too many parents think of high-tech video games, television, computers, and recreational programs when they think of play. But what’s really important to children is that their own parents and caregivers spend time with them in unstructured play that allows children to create their own activities.

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During a lunchtime conversation between three mothers, one mother mentioned that she needed to find an activity for her child for the only weekday afternoon when he was not already scheduled for sports, music, and afterschool activities. The Urban Child Institute staffer who happened to overhear this exchange could not help but notice the irony that within walking distance of the restaurant, children are growing up without opportunities for enriching activities because of the poverty of their families.

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We’ve been emphasizing the importance of early childhood language and literacy for individual children and families, and also for Memphis and Shelby County as a whole. But let’s get more specific: what would our community look like if it were known for its high literacy?

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Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has set audacious goals for our community’s public education system, beginning with this year’s second graders. He wants 80 percent of them to graduate high school “college and career-ready,” 90 percent overall to graduate, and 100 percent of those ready for college and careers to pursue higher education.

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Our annual Brain Awareness Night will take place at The Urban Child Institute. This year’s invited speakers are nationally known experts who will spotlight the importance of early literacy and language development in our children’s first years. Helen Perkins, Ed.D., from the University of Memphis and Daniela O’Neill, Ph.D., from the University of Waterloo (Canada) will be joining us for this special evening.

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At The Urban Child Institute we place great value on data, because it can shape our local agenda, inform strategies, inspire advocacy, and drive action. Ultimately, that is the purpose of this year’s compendium of data and information about the lives of the children of Memphis and Shelby County: Off To A Good Start: Social and Emotional Development of Memphis’ Children.

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