early learning

What to Know About Florida’s VPK Program and the Benefits of Early Learning

You may think that kindergarten is the perfect time to launch your child’s educational journey, but research shows that a large part of a child’s intellectual development takes place much earlier. Lindsay Carson, Chief Executive Officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, shares details about optimal start times for learning, and how every parent can find the right Early Learning Center (ELC) for their budget.

How early do children begin to learn?

Children begin learning from the moment they are born and even before that. In fact, research has shown that the first five years of life are particularly important for shaping a child’s brain architecture and establishing a foundation for future learning.

During the prenatal period, babies begin to learn through sensory experiences. They can hear their mother’s voice, feel her movements and respond to external stimuli. After birth, children continue to learn rapidly as they interact with their environment and the people around them.

Why is early learning so crucial for a child’s development?

The early years of a child’s life are a period of rapid brain development. In fact, 90% of synapses are formed before a child ever sets foot in a kindergarten classroom. The brain forms critical connections and neural pathways that lay the foundation for future learning and cognitive abilities. Early learning experiences help stimulate and strengthen these connections, optimizing brain development and setting the stage for future academic and social success.

What happens during a typical day of an early learning program?

A typical day in an early learning program encompasses a range of activities and experiences that are designed to promote the holistic development of young children across various developmental domains.

Children engage in activities that promote gross motor skills, such as running, jumping and climbing, through outdoor play or structured movement activities. Fine motor skills are nurtured through activities like drawing, cutting and manipulating small objects, which help develop hand-eye coordination and dexterity.

Children are provided with opportunities for exploration, problem-solving and critical thinking. They engage in activities that promote early math concepts, such as counting, sorting and shape recognition, as well as literacy activities like reading books, listening to stories and engaging in language-rich conversations.

Children participate in activities that encourage social interactions, cooperation and empathy. They engage in group activities, play together and learn how to manage their emotions and express themselves appropriately. An early learning classroom fosters a positive and inclusive environment where children develop a sense of belonging and self-confidence.

Children are exposed to a rich language environment, where they engage in conversations with peers and adults. They participate in storytelling, singing songs and engaging in activities that enhance vocabulary development and communication skills. Reading books and engaging in language-based activities promote early literacy skills.

Overall, a typical day in an early learning program aims to provide a nurturing and stimulating environment that promotes children’s development across the physical, cognitive, social-emotional and language domains. By addressing each of these domains, early learning programs lay a solid foundation for children’s lifelong learning and success.

How can parents bring those skills into their own home to continue their child’s education?

Parents are a child’s first teacher and play a vital role in teaching/reinforcing skills at home. There are many opportunities throughout the day to positively affect children’s learning and development. Going to the park or playing outside helps grow large motor skills. Drawing pictures and talking about what they drew helps develop small motor and language skills. Talking about feelings and what to do with them helps develop social and emotional skills. Simple activities like sorting and counting socks help develop math skills. One of the best ways to help your child become a good reader is to read to them. The time you spend together makes them associate reading with pleasure.

What is Florida’s Free VPK?

VPK is a state program designed to prepare every child in Florida for kindergarten and build the foundations for their educational success. All eligible children are entitled to participate in one of three VPK program options. The VPK mission is to ensure that all children are intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically ready to enter school and ready to learn. The VPK program fully recognizes the crucial role of parents as their child’s first teacher. (DEL Florida VPK Handbook)

Why is Florida’s Free VPK important for children before Kindergarten?

VPK gives each child an opportunity to perform better in school and throughout life with quality programs that include high literacy standards, accountability, appropriate curricula, substantial instruction periods, manageable class sizes and qualified instructors. (DEL Florida VPK Handbook)

Is it better to do a full-year program or summer VPK right before school starts?

Determining the program that meets the family and child’s needs is a parental choice. Both programs offer the same curricula. The main difference is that the full-year program, known as the School-year program, offers 540 hours of instruction. The Summer program offers 300 instructional hours.

How many schools in Pinellas County offer free VPK?

For the current 2022-2023 program year there are 272 sites.

Does my child have to attend VPK in the county we reside in, or can we register them in the county where I work?

No, you do not need to reside in the County [in which] you wish to register your child in VPK.

Are there programs available for special needs children?

Although there are not specific programs that ELC offers for children with special needs, there is a Warmline that parents can call to get assistance with ADA laws, referral options and support in obtaining childcare listings that may meet their child’s needs. The Warmline number is 727-545-7536.

We also offer a Special Needs Rate to providers that go above and beyond to support the daily needs of a school readiness child in their care with a documented special need (IEP/IFSP).

VPK offers SIS (Specialized Instructional Services) this provides instruction or therapy in individual or small group settings for eligible children with special needs. The child must have a current IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a local school district.

How can parents register their children to participate in VPK?

A parent can register for a VPK program by applying through the Family Portal at https://familyservices.floridaearlylearning.com. Families must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Birth verification to prove their child meets the VPK age
  • Florida residency requirement

How can parents find assistance searching for the right early learning program or financial support?

Families searching for early learning options and other resources may contact Child Care Resource and Referral, a free service to the community at 400-4411, option 3 and then option 3, or at www.elcpinellas.org. If requesting childcare options, they will be provided with a listing of providers that meet their specific criteria.

Families seeking help paying for childcare can contact the School Readiness Wait List at 727-400-4411, option 3 and then option 2.

Families will apply for assistance through the online Family Portal system at familyservices.floridaearlylearning.com.

*Presented by Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas | Originally published in the June 2023 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine | iStock-998509166