GVSU child development experts help develop learning kits for West Michigan families

Hundreds of West Michigan 3- and 4-year-olds and their parents are benefiting this summer from learning kits developed with expertise from Grand Valley faculty members.

These special kits to encourage interaction among family members as well as help children reach developmental milestones were assembled with advisory support from retired psychology professor Sandra Portko, Gwenden Dueker, professor of psychology, and Jing Chen, associate professor of psychology.

Their expertise helped representatives from Family Futures and Ready for School, which are organizations dedicated to early childhood school readiness and well-being, finalize the kits that were sent to homes.

The 385 3-year-olds received kits which included pails, shovels, buckets and a book, while 400 4-year-olds received kits including a pot, dirt, seeds and a book, according to officials with Family Futures. The project also received support from the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage.

Candace Cowling, executive director of Family Futures and a Grand Valley graduate, said having access to the caliber of input GVSU faculty members could provide while developing kit content was valuable.

"The feedback from families about the kits has been amazing and it ties directly back to the partnership of Family Futures, Ready for School and GVSU," Cowling said. "The importance of community was ingrained in me when I went to GVSU, so I know that I can turn to the GVSU community when we need leaders in the field of child development."

An example of the kit sent to families of 3-year-olds, including a book and a shovel.
Both photos courtesy of Family Futures
The kit that was sent to 4-year-olds, with a book, gardening materials and instructions
Grand Valley psychology faculty members reviewed the learning kits that were sent to West Michigan families. At left is the kit sent to families with 3-year-olds; at right is the kit that was sent to families with 4-year-olds.

Portko, who noted Cowling was one of her students, said she initiated the collaboration with Family Futures before her retirement and then introduced Dueker and Chen, who helped the agency with desired research. That collaboration has evolved into the three serving as an advisory council to support work such as these kits, Portko said.

The GVSU faculty members said the kits are good tools in the overall goal of helping parents understand how they can positively affect children's development. For instance, using the gardening tools in the kit introduces children to science and invites beneficial interaction between parents and children, Portko said.

"You want to make things developmentally important for parents and children so they can utilize the kits, and so parents don't see it as a task or work, but fun for everyone," Portko said.

The message of how children can benefit from simple activities and play with their parents is particularly important for adults who are overburdened and worried about finding time and resources to help their children progress, Dueker said. 

"We really want to home in on giving reassurance that their children are OK and on the right track," Dueker said. "These kits go along with that message very well."

Chen said the input on the kits included advising on age-appropriate sizes or shapes of items. She also noted that the kit provided additional opportunities for learning, such as parents working with their children to count the number of leaves of plants that are sprouting.

Representatives with the organizations were receptive to suggested changes prior to sending out the final versions of the kits, Chen said. "The work they have done is really evidence-based and helped us lend our expertise," she said.

Donna Lowry, president and CEO of Ready for School, said that expertise and advice helped beneficially refine the kits.

“The GVSU faculty are subject matter experts in early childhood education and family systems," Lowry said. "The advice and 'endorsement' of the kit content/prototype to the final kit design was key to success.”