Is every child in your community ready to start school? This may seem like a strange question to families still finishing up their plans for summer vacation. But in reality, it’s never too soon to start making sure children are prepared for their first day of school. That includes children for whom kindergarten is still a few years down the road. So I’m pleased that Nickelodeon has launched a new initiative to help provide preschoolers the resources, skills, and support they will need to be well-prepared for school and ready to start their school years on the right path. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is joining the National Parent Teacher Association, actress Salma Hayek Pinault, and others in partnering with Nickelodeon on this important school readiness campaign.

The initiative was launched as part of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Nickelodeon’s popular Latina preschool character Dora the Explorer. It’s named “Beyond the Backpack,” taking its title from the well-stocked backpack that keeps Dora ready for every adventure. Nickelodeon hopes to similarly prepare young children for the big adventure of starting school. As they explain, “As findings from the National School Readiness Indicators Initiative note all too well, ‘The first five years of life are critical to kids’ lifelong development. However, too many children enter kindergarten with physical, social, emotional and cognitive limitations that could have been minimized or eliminated through early attention to child and family needs. Research shows that children who are not performing proficiently by the end of third grade are at very high risk of poor long-term outcomes, such as dropping out of school, teen pregnancy and juvenile crime.’ Beyond the Backpack is about the navigational tools—emotional, physical, experiential and actual that kids need to start school. Beyond the Backpackengages parents, educators and the community at large in the four areas critical to school success: 1) social and emotional “know how,” 2) early literacy and math skills, 3) parental involvement in schools, 4) health and wellness. Families and communities are a critical part of the solution for the well-rounded development of young kids.”

This multi-year campaign will include a Web site with information, links to partner organizations, and downloadable content for parents and educators; public service announcements; financial resources and grants; fundraising activities; and community events. The National PTA will be co-authoring a parents’ toolkit and distributing materials to PTA leaders and parents across the country. Salma Hayek Pinault, John Leguizamo, Slash, Shakira, and others will be contributing to a limited-edition series of celebrity-designed Dora-themed backpacks that will be auctioned off in a number of countries in support of child education initiatives, and one hundred percent of the United States proceeds will benefit CDF.

CDF has worked for over three decades to support the growth and development of our nation’s children through quality early care. We have paid special attention to the crucial early years when so much brain and emotional development occur. These foundational years can and must propel all our children towards healthy and successful lives. I applaud Beyond the Backpack, which will give parents tools to share unforgettable learning opportunities that stir the mind and spirit of their child. This is the real power of education.

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