Baby Talk: Early Childhood Experts Organize Baby Block Party to Promote Lifelong Favorable Outcomes

A number of organizations on the Texas Home Visiting Community Advisory Board are planning Baby Block Party, a playful come-and-go event for children one month to three years old and their families on Saturday, July 16 at Ornelas Activity Center on Old Omen Rd. in Tyler from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. 

Child development specialist Kristin Omo shares a moment with two young children in a music and movement class. 📷 courtesy Kristin Omo

Parents and caregivers can register to attend free of charge here. The event is a collaboration of stakeholders including Champions for Children, Nurse-Family Partnership, Early Childhood Intervention, Parents as Teachers, Tyler Public Library and East Texas Crisis Center.

Stephen Hidalgo is an early childhood intervention specialist and early childhood special educator with more than 30 years of experience working with children with developmental disabilities and their families. 

He said the Baby Block Party is a time for caregivers to complete the Ages and Stages Questionnaire. “[The questionnaire] is a developmental screening tool … to help parents see which skills their child is and isn’t doing yet and gives an opportunity to practice those skills at home,” he said.

The questionnaire was developed at the University of Oregon and is used worldwide to detect early childhood milestones in five areas of development: cognitive, social/emotional, speech/language, fine motor skills and gross motor skills. 

A young child plays at Family Fest 2021, organized by Texas Home Visiting Community Advisory Board.📷 courtesy Susan Rodriguez

Hidalgo said the questionnaire looks for milestones through activities such as retrieving a Cheerio from a plastic bottle; walking alternating steps; kicking and throwing a ball; drinking from a cup; and interacting with a stuffed toy. 

Susan Rodriguez, program director for Texas Home Visiting at The University of Texas Health Science Center, leads the Texas Home Visiting Community Advisory Board. She said the board collaborated to organize Family Fest in December 2021 and then decided to offer Baby Block Party to the community. 

“Given what we’ve been through with the pandemic with so many disruptions in life, [it] has left parents at a loss. There were always struggling parents, because the bottom line is the first time you do it, you don’t know what the heck you’re doing,” Rodriguez said.

[Parents] “bring different life experiences with them. You need some guidance; you need to ask someone you trust.”

Rodriguez said Baby Block Party’s goal is to provide anything to help parents feel confident in what they’re doing. “Any parent, no matter what their socioeconomic reality is, no matter what the race is, their education level. It’s tough being a parent, and those first three years of life are critical,” she said.

Kristin Omo, a child development specialist who has been with Champions for Children for over 20 years, knows about early brain development professionally and personally. 

Kristin Omo said her adopted son, now grown, started her journey to learn more about the brain and child development. 📷 courtesy Kristin Omo

“I am degreed in psychology and biology, and we adopted two little boys,” Omo said. “Both my children had a lot of special needs from birth mother neglect.”

Omo said the earlier intervention can happen, the more effective it will be.

 “The first three years of life are critical for brain development. Eighty to 85% of the brain develops in those first three years,” she said. 

Omo said trillions of neural connections are being formed within the first year of life. 

Omo hopes the Baby Block Party helps educate parents about developmental milestones and give them tools to help build their childrens’ brains. She said what’s needed for optimal development includes at least one person to bond and attach with.

“Touch releases that first boost of oxytocin, which is our love chemical,” Omo said. 

A grandmother helps build her grandchild’s foundational social and emotional skills through reciprocal back and forth talking and extended eye contact. 📷 courtesy Kristin Omo

She also cited the importance of caregivers providing repetition and a safe environment.

“If children don’t feel safe, their brain gets flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone, and it literally will stunt and destroy parts of the brain,” Omo said. 

She noted the old practice of letting a baby “cry it out” for a long time intensely in the first year of life can damage the brain stem.

 “We’re now more sophisticated, and we know we don’t want to do that in the first year of life,” she said. 

Hidalgo said children are learning all the time, even if they appear to be unfocused.

In his work with children at Tyler Public Library, Hidalgo plans and leads story times and activities for young children. While it can appear as though a child is not paying attention, Hidalgo said the exposure to language and movement is extremely valuable.

“During story time, [young children] might move around the room. Parents are concerned they should be sitting down and listening, but in reality, if the child is hearing … their brain is storing the words for later retrieval. That is why it’s important for parents to talk to their children all throughout the day about all kinds of things,” Hidalgo said.

Omo said a number of longitudinal studies have tracked children from their daycare years into their 20s. The studies revealed foundations from daycare during early childhood supported adult success decades later: a nurturing, stimulating environment; a positive self-esteem; good social skills; and good self-regulation.

Children engage in play at Family Fest. The fest and upcoming Baby Block Party are organized by Texas Home Visiting Community Advisory Board. 📷 courtesy Susan Rodriguez

Rodriguez spoke to challenges East Texans may face while pregnant, giving birth and parenting a newborn.

“Texas really has a big problem with maternal mortality, and Smith County in particular has a big problem in infant mortality: babies that don’t make it to the first year,” she said. “We have a really big problem with perinatal depression and suicide, if moms don’t know that it’s okay to get help.”

As Rodriguez considers her big dreams for parents and young children, she hopes more parents will think about parenting and make choices they would share with others. 

“The big hope is that families are going to be healthier,” she said. “And the deepest of my hopes, always, is we’ll eliminate disparities and have equity for all kids and families.”

Omo dreams about the difference optimal early childhood could make. She said optimal early foundations are powerful enough to improve outcomes in East Texas’ labor force, economy, physical health and quality of life.

[It would touch] “all of that, because it is so all-encompassing,” she said. If we could teach things like the importance of language, the importance of bonding and attachment – the importance of all those things – then just think how that would change our world at large. It’s staggering.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.