How do we best prepare our children for future success?
For nearly 25 years, our Minnesota Learning Resource Center has addressed this question via S.M.A.R.T. (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training), a movement-based program designed to enhance brain development in elementary-aged children.
With decades of proven results in academic settings, the S.M.A.R.T. team took the next logical step: In 2020, they launched S.M.A.R.T. Steps, a version of the program adapted for Family Child Care providers working within their homes with newborns to five-year-olds.
“This crucial stage in a child’s development sets the foundation for a wide range of skills and learning capacities,” says Katie Hansen, Assistant Director of the program. “S.M.A.R.T. activities strengthen these foundations, like balance and coordination, eye movements, and auditory discrimination. Once these skills become automatic, a child is more equipped to sit still in a chair, read smoothly across a page, and hear differences in sounds - all essential for school readiness and academic success.”
With input from the providers, S.M.A.R.T. activities have been specifically tailored to their needs. And the first 18 providers we’ve trained love it! The plan is to take the program statewide in the near future.
Says Darla, a S.M.A.R.T. Steps provider in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota: “A lot of the things I knew in the back of my head, but I just wasn’t putting the two together, like how it was actually helping the child with little things, like sitting or focusing. Knowing that this is really helping my kids in the long run of their lives, and how it can be useful even for me to do, it’s just so positive!”
LaDonna, another provider from Sleepy Eye, says her kids love the activities and are now doing them every day. “We like to do stuff all the time - fine motor, gross motor, at least a taste of it every day. And it’s easy for me because I’m not using a big curriculum,” she says. “When we make our projects or read our books, we can get it all put together quickly, no problem.”
S.M.A.R.T. Steps is designed to give providers all the training and support they need, at times and in ways that work for them, as well as valuable knowledge that helps them provide high-quality care. The goal was to make S.M.A.R.T. Steps very easy to incorporate into any daycare environment. With lots of little ones running around, it needs to be. Providers don’t always have the capacity to orchestrate activities because they are constantly being pulled in different directions. The key to making it work is an online learning management system, called Thinkific, that gives providers easy access to training and resources necessary to integrate the program into their day.
As with other S.M.A.R.T. programs, we provide mentoring services, something other programs don’t always offer. LaDonna says she loves the mentor visits and the hands-on instruction she receives. “They give ideas and help us fine-tune movements - like the pencil roll, for example, to use their hips and to get some speed - I wouldn’t have known those things, but the mentors watch closely to see if we’re doing it correctly.” Currently, these services are offered in person; as the program grows, they will be online to keep the program affordable and accessible.
Alissa and her kids like the visits too. “I have some kids that I kind of worry about,” she says, “and Katie can tell me what to do with them. It’s great watching the kids’ eyes light up when they finally get something. We all benefit from it.”
Making a Difference
According to our providers, their young charges have embraced S.M.A.R.T. Steps activities. “They do the majority of the activities without even being told.” says Darla. “They’ll hop in to wash their hands or do different balance moves like flamingos. Today, we’re working with scissors and cutting with two hands. We’ll do courses with tunnels, balance beams, we do hopping and jumping and helicopters. They like doing fine motor, but their favorite is getting out the large muscle movements.”
Providers said that their children’s behavior and social skills have improved as well since the activities were introduced. “The kids get along better,” says Alissa. “The older ones attempt to help the younger ones learn things, like how to do the courses. They challenge themselves and each other to go faster.” Likewise, Darla says her kids' ability to work together has improved, especially when it comes to sharing.
For the S.M.A.R.T. Steps providers, that’s what it’s all about. “You think you may only have a child for a little while, but why not help that kid out?” says Darla. “Why wait until they get into school when they’re so frustrated? The teachers have 20 other kids, and that poor kid is so frustrated and behind. We can help them out before.”
If you are a Family Child Care Provider, or know of a Provider who may be interested in learning more about the S.M.A.R.T. Steps program, please visit our S.M.A.R.T. Steps page and complete an application. Details on our next training cohort will be shared soon. For questions, please contact the S.M.A.R.T. Steps team at firstname.lastname@example.org.