OAKLAND -- Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped launch a campaign aimed at encouraging parents to read aloud to infants from birth at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland on Wednesday.
The campaign, called Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing, is based on the increasingly recognized importance of brain development that occurs within the first three years of a child's life.
As constant reinforcement, its message will broadcast in Oakland on billboards, radio and television and even through text messages. Parents and caregivers can get a teaching tool kit from Sesame Street and baby clothes made by Oaklandish.
"A parent is a child's first teacher, and a family is a child's first school," Clinton said. "And we want to let every parent in Oakland and the Bay Area know you can actually build a smarter child, increase brain development by doing our simple, low-cost activities."
Plopping a child in front of a television will not cut it, but the simple actions of talking, reading and singing to a child enhance important communication skills. Even talking about a bus ride or about the colors in a book helps bridge the reading gap that quickly widens between children from low-income and more affluent families.
Research found that by the age of 4, children of affluent parents have heard 30 million more words than children of low-income, less educated parents, who fall behind in building a vocabulary.
Children in low-income families can speak 500 words by their fourth birthday compared to 700 words for a child from a working-class family and 1,100 for a child from a professional family.
According to a March survey of Oakland families, less than half of low-income parents reported telling a story to their child or singing to their child daily, and only 52 percent read to their child daily.
"Behind these numbers are real families that are struggling and real children who are missing out on what their families could do for them," Clinton said of the findings.
Oakland is a pilot community for the effort because of its diversity and challenges. The city has a strong network of leaders interested in early literacy.
"We're trying to solve a pretty big problem," said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of Bay Area Council, a local business group and campaign partner. He said that supporting early education leads to a new generation of invention and progress.
Oakland and Tulsa, Okla., where the program rolled out last March, hopefully will become models for implementing the program in other communities across the nation, including San Francisco and San Jose, said Ann O'Leary, director of Too Small Too Fail, the initiative behind the campaign that is a partnership between San Francisco-based Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
"Here in Oakland, we really want to get it right," O'Leary said. "We want to over the next couple years focus on how to increase awareness."
Local groups and resources, such as religious organizations, libraries and health care providers are distributing educational campaign materials to the community. Partner Kaiser Permanente is giving them to the parents of 2,100 new babies born in its Oakland medical center and at its well-baby visits.
"If successful, we would spread this across other Kaiser facilities across the nation and hope to expand the program," said Janet Liang, chief operating officer for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, also a partner, is running a more targeted campaign through pediatric visits that will be evaluated in order to create a model for other hospitals, O'Leary said.
To mark the start of the campaign, a citywide baby shower with entertainment and educational activities is being held at Oakland's Fairyland at 10 a.m. Thursday.
"To see a child's face light up is reward enough, but to know that it's not only their faces but their brains (that) light up is an extraordinary sense of empowerment that through their families, we want to convey," Clinton said.