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VOL. 128 | NO. 226 | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Early Advantage

Urban Child Institute message spreads in Pink Palace exhibit

ERIN WILLIAMS | Special to The Daily News

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Talk, touch, read and play.

Katy Spurlock, the Urban Child Institute’s director of education and dissemination, with “The Early Advantage” exhibit at the Pink Palace Museum.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

These four words focused on early childhood development have helped to shape the mission of the Urban Child Institute for the past four years, and now they are traveling beyond the building and into the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. The important message bears repeating and repetition in creating bright young minds, and the institute is focused on spreading the word as far and wide as possible – starting with their kiosk-like exhibition, “The Early Advantage.”

“We are wired to love on babies … but to understand the science behind why that special love and attention is so important … we want everybody to understand how important it is to really focus resources and attention on children in these first three years,” said Katy Spurlock, the Urban Child Institute’s director of education and dissemination.

The touch-screen program takes the unofficial motto and turns it into an interactive quiz on early childhood development.

“We call it the ‘Interactive Brain Map,’” Spurlock said. “It’s really meant to show adults or caregivers how to interact with a child.”

The institute contracted with the Center for Multimedia Arts at the University of Memphis to develop the first of six modules that will eventually roll out as more funding becomes available, and is making its debut as part of the exhibit space at the Pink Palace.

The program itself, placed on the first floor in the exhibition space, is short but effective. Patrons approach a touch screen that presents different scenarios tied to the “Touch Talk Read Play” focus. Over the course of a simulated day, patrons have three opportunities to choose in what way than can stimulate their child’s energy, ranging from playing with your cell phone while your child begs for your attention to reading a book together before bed.

At the end, the computer goes through each choice you made and then decides if you had a good or OK day with your child, and focuses on how the impact of the day shaped the child’s brain development.

“We want everybody to understand that young children – particularly in these first three years – are in a very vulnerable time, but also a huge time of opportunity because whatever happens to them in those first three years helps to establish a foundation for their brain development,” said Spurlock of the exhibit’s debut.

The Kiwanis Clubs of Germantown and the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District have helped to participate in the exhibition’s funding and placement, along with the University of Tennessee Neuroscience Institute, who has been working with the Urban Child Institute for several years on public programming.

“We’re putting it in venues where we know children go,” said William Armstrong, professor in the department of anatomy and neurobiology and director of the Neuroscience Institute.

He assisted in the development of the curriculum for The Early Advantage. Armstrong noted that as time has gone on, it’s become more and more recognized by both the medical and childcare fields how important this early development is in a child’s life, and that maybe it will be seen by parents whose schedules don’t always allow for such regular behavior.

“You can throw a lot of money at different problems, but nothing works better than contact and development in those early years,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to have it reflect how these activities would actually [infringe] on different areas of the brain and what they would actually do.”

Steve Pike, director of museums for the Pink Palace Family of Museums, saw it as a no-brainer to allow the institute to debut its project at the museum, and understands that its tenets fall in line with the overall education aspect that the museum supports.

“To the extent that children come to us ready and willing to be educated, it makes our job easier. It makes it possible for us to do a better job,” he said. “Things like spending time with your child, playing with your child, talking to your child, reading to your child, paying attention to your child – gives a child both the social skills and the cognitive ability to learn before they ever get to a museum or before they ever get to a school, for that matter.”

He hopes that those who do stop by will take the time to implement what he calls “self-motivated learning.”

“There’s a full day of stuff to do here, but I would certainly urge anybody who comes here with a kid to just take a little minute and look at that exhibit, because it’s where they’re gonna find something that they can really give the kid,” Pike said.

The Memphis Public Library and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital have also expressed interest in receiving the exhibit after its run ends in February, Spurlock said, who added that the additional modules will roll out on an as-funded basis. Combined with the institute’s ads on TV, radio, written materials, trainings and even T-shirts, the message could continue to grow with time. “For our education system to get better, for our criminal justice system to reduce its numbers, for our economic development to increase, we need to pay attention to all children in our community in these first three years and realize the vulnerability that’s there as well as the opportunity to do things right,” Spurlock said.

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