Learning begins in Nana y Yo program
The YMCA’s free course for children getting ready for kindergarten — and their caregivers — aims to expand across Silicon Valley
Amaya Salazar stared straight ahead, intently focused on the picture book her teacher held aloft.
Curious George, the inquisitive monkey beloved for generations by children the world over, was visiting a fire station and the almost 3-year-old’s eyes were glued to the bright yellow and red pages.
Suddenly Amaya’s little voice pierced the air. She’d been to a fire station, she announced proudly.
Without missing a beat, the instructor, Sabrina Montijo, capitalized on the interjection. Who works at a fire station, she asked the children before her, and what do they do?
Several kids piped up, “Firefighters!”
The exchange was brief, a blip on a recent morning. But it’s exactly what the YMCA of Silicon Valley wants to see.
“FFN is not going away. But if you’re in an FFN situation, it can be pretty isolating.”
— Mary Hoshiko Haughey, senior vice president of operations at YMCA of Silicon Valley. FFN stands for family, friend and neighbor care, the technical term for informal child care arrangements
The organization runs the classes Amaya and her grandmother, Alicia Koch, attend a couple of mornings each week in Sunnyvale. Officially known as the YMCA Early Learning Readiness program, the course is better known in the community as Nana y Yo, or Grandma and Me.
Launched about nine years ago, the program aims to help children who aren’t enrolled in day care or preschool get ready for kindergarten and to give their caregivers tools to encourage learning at home. And what started out as a small-scale operation has now blossomed into 17 sites across Silicon Valley serving about 500 children and caretakers.
When Amaya and her grandmother first came to the cheery portable classroom at Lakewood Elementary School, the shy toddler wasn’t talking or interacting much with the other kids. Now she’s chattering away and eagerly joins activities, from story time to art projects.
“She talks a lot,” Koch said. “She sings and she knows her numbers. I appreciate it so much.”
“She’s more hands-on and helping and independent,” echoed Edward Salazar, Amaya’s dad.
Before the toddler and her grandmother began participating in Nana y Yo, they mostly spent quiet time with each other at home. But at Lakewood, the classroom is full of stimulation. The walls are covered with a colorful poster depicting the popular children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Puzzles and Play-Doh blanket little tables surrounded by tiny chairs. There’s a good morning song in both English and Spanish, and the ABCs. There’s constant talk about shapes and colors, and math is subtly injected into everything, from counting pumpkin seeds to sorting objects.
Outside is a playground with slides and climbing walls, tricycles for riding and balls for bouncing.
Across Silicon Valley, thousands of children like Amaya are cared for by family members, friends and neighbors instead of enrolled in formal day care centers and preschool programs. While there are lots of reasons families choose such informal child care and plenty of benefits, there also can be some drawbacks. Low-income children, especially, often reach kindergarten behind their higher-income peers whose families tend to be better positioned to offer rich early learning opportunities.
And in Silicon Valley, where the space between the poor and the rich has widened in recent years, those gaps in school readiness are particularly stark.
“It feels like the whole kind of middle class is disappearing,” said Mary Hoshiko Haughey, the senior vice president of operations at YMCA of Silicon Valley. “I’ve seen the need increase and the gap increase.”
Nana y Yo is aimed at reducing those disparities, in large part by helping caretakers be the best possible first teachers for the children they watch.
“That’s one of the mind shifts around this,” Hoshiko Haughey said. The program is geared toward not just children or their caretakers, she said, but at both, simultaneously.
Montijo remembers the first time Amaya, then a couple of months into the program, told her teacher good morning “out of the blue.”
“It was a really cool change,” Montijo said.
The program also gives the grandparents and other people who care for young children a chance to connect with each other.
“FFN is not going away,” Hoshiko Haughey said, using the acronym for family, friend and neighbor care, the technical term for informal child care arrangements. “But if you’re in an FFN situation, it can be pretty isolating.”
On days when they’re not at Lakewood, Koch and Amaya sometimes meet up with other Nana y Yo participants at a local park. They swap clothes and tips.
“They’re giving me ideas,” Koch said.
Kate Leary, whose 2-year-old twins Nora and Emma also participate in the program, agrees.
“With the activities here, I kind of take them home,” Leary said, especially on rainy winter days when the family is cooped up inside. “I get an idea of what to do.”
Hoshiko Haughey launched Nana y Yo in San Jose after researching similar programs, including Kaleidoscope Play and Learn in Washington and Tutu and Me in Hawaii. Now, the program operates from Gilroy up to Redwood City, and YMCA has taken the model nationally. The program, which runs 36 weeks a year, has an 80 percent attendance rate year after year, and has grown rapidly by word of mouth.
YMCA Silicon Valley would like to open more sites locally. There are plenty of schools and libraries willing to host classes, and the organization has cultivated a robust network of faith groups and schools that refer families. But the program is free and funding is tight.
“The need is huge,” Hoshiko Haughey said.
She and her colleagues hope that if they can launch more Nana y Yo courses, YMCA Silicon Valley can help make sure hundreds more children are ready for school.
Salazar, Amaya’s dad, hopes they succeed. As he watched his daughter, pigtails bouncing, dash through the playground with her friends, shrieking with delight, he ticked off more ways she’s grown. She’s more active physically, he said, better at sharing and eager to help clean up.
“I think,” he said, “this is a good preparation for kindergarten.”
Marivic Hoayun, left, plays a learning game with her daughters Victoria, center, and Gwendolyn at the YMCA’s Nana y Yo program at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale. The early learning program is geared toward children and their caregivers.
Aayisha Gupta, 3, holds a ball on a jungle gym at the YMCA’s Nana y Yo program. The program provides training for caregivers with tools to enhance early learning.