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First lady Patricia Blagojevich celebrates the grand opening of the Kohl Children's Museum's 2-acre interactive outdoor exhibit, Habitat Park          Send a link to a friend

First lady stresses the importance of early childhood education, discusses Preschool for All and encourages parents to take advantage of museums as an innovative, hands-on approach to education

[MAY 30, 2006]  GLENVIEW -- First lady Patricia Blagojevich celebrated the grand opening of the Kohl Children's Museum's new 2-acre interactive outdoor exhibit, Habitat Park, on May 23. Habitat Park offers fun and educational programming for a diverse audience of young children, their families, caregivers and teachers. At the museum, the first lady talked about the importance of early childhood education and highlighted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich's landmark Preschool for All plan, a program that makes Illinois the only state in that nation to offer high-quality preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old child.

"Kohl Children's Museum's newest exhibit is a great opportunity for education and entertainment for all Illinois families," Mrs. Blagojevich said. "Habitat Park will offer children wonderful chances to learn about the environment from an early age and to explore and respect the world outside. Habitat Park will also offer a safe and secure environment for young children and their caregivers to discover the wonders of our state's natural beauty."

"We are very excited about the opening of Habitat Park," said Sheridan Turner, president and chief executive officer of Kohl Children's Museum. "As safe outdoor spaces are being replaced with huge developments, children are becoming more and more disconnected from the natural world around them. They're spending more time inside, interacting with electronic playthings and not experiencing the wonders of nature as much as they could, particularly children from underserved urban areas that the museum targets for outreach opportunities.

"Not only does Habitat Park offer a fun, safe place for children to experience nature at a young age, it also increases the number of programs we can offer and children we can educate. We are fortunate to have access to an outdoor space that will certainly build a love of nature for children at an early age and shape future advocates of the world's natural resources."

Open year-round, Habitat Park allows children to explore the natural environment during all four seasons. Featuring a secure, fenced-in outdoor space complemented with winding paths and sculptures designed to be touched and interacted with, children can safely explore the exhibit's various habitats, including indigenous plant and animal life. The exhibit includes occasional programming with museum educators, such as natural scavenger hunts, shelter building, shadow games, parachute play, tree and leaf matching, opportunities to assist with outdoor caretaking, and insect explorations. These activities are designed so teachers and adult caregivers across all generations can easily replicate or expand on the experiences at home, school, on family vacations or outings to other outdoor parks.

Habitat Park offers interactive art experiences to enhance outdoor exploration and discovery. Animal tracks are painted on the sidewalks to represent the presence of deer, squirrels, frogs and other animals. Children are encouraged to follow the tracks to discover places where those animals might make their homes. Plenty of opportunities for building fun are provided in the three 52-inch digging areas, which are filled with sand and stocked with safe, developmentally appropriate sand toys.

Directions to Kohl Children's Museum can be found at http://www.kohlchildrensmuseum.org/

At the Kohl Children's Museum, the first lady addressed the importance of early education. She highlighted the governor's landmark Preschool for All plan and urged parents to take their children to museums.

"Starting education as early as possible is fundamental for children to do well in school," she said. "Museums create an environment where children can learn, be active and have fun, all at the same time, and most importantly, at a young age. Taking a trip to the museum is an enjoyable learning experience for both adults and children. I encourage parents to take advantage of the many wonderful children's museums here in Illinois."

The governor's Preschool for All plan guarantees that nearly 190,000 children in Illinois will have the chance to attend preschool. Studies have shown that students who attend preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to need special education and less likely to be arrested for committing violent crimes.

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Preschool for All will allow every community to offer high-quality preschool in a variety of settings, including public and private schools, child care centers and licensed family child care homes, private preschools, park districts, faith-based organizations, and other community-based agencies. The program requires that preschools be staffed by experienced teachers who hold bachelor's degrees and specialized training in early education. The preschools are required to provide at least 2 1/2 hours per day of high-quality programming designed to foster all of the skills -- social, emotional, physical and cognitive -- that all young children need to achieve success.

The language for Preschool for All was contained in Senate Bill 1497, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester. The legislation amends the Illinois School Code to authorize the use of state funds for pre-kindergarten services for children who are not defined as "at-risk." Under current law, pre-kindergarten funds are used exclusively to serve at-risk kids. At-risk kids have the greatest need of service, and numerous studies show that they benefit significantly from attending preschool.

However, there are many kids who do not meet the current definition of at-risk who could still benefit from preschool. For example, parents making $50,000 a year may not have enough money to provide their child with high-quality preschool, but if a child doesn't have any other risk factors, they're not going to qualify for state-funded pre-kindergarten. In Illinois, the average annual cost of private early learning programs for 3- and 4-year-olds is $5,200, and the cost for two children can exceed $10,400 annually, the salary of a minimum-wage earner. The new Preschool for All will continue to prioritize at-risk children but expands the program to also serve middle-income families.

On May 22, the governor signed the fiscal 2007 budget, which includes $45 million to give 10,000 more children the chance to attend preschool. By providing increases of $45 million in each of the following two years, Illinois will give a total of 32,000 more kids the opportunity to attend preschool. After three years, every 4-year-old will be covered, plus more than 55,000 3-year-olds. In years four and five of the rollout, service will be extended to all remaining interested 3-year-olds.

Countless studies demonstrate the benefits of early learning in preschool. Children who begin reading at age 3 or 4 do better throughout their academic careers. Children who received high-quality early education are 20 percent more likely to complete high school and 41 percent less likely to be placed in special education. In addition, children who received high-quality early education are 42 percent less likely to be arrested as a juvenile for a violent offense, and they will have higher earnings and property wealth as an adult.

Investments in early childhood education also pay enormous economic dividends in the long term. Based on certain economic returns like increased earning potential, decreased dependency on social services and on the justice system, it is estimated that society receives $7.14 for every $1 spent on early child care programs. That means the $90 million Blagojevich has invested over the last two years would yield at least $643 million in savings over the lifetime of those children. A newer study released in November 2004 found an even higher rate of return, showing a savings of more than $17 for every $1 invested.

As first lady, Patricia Blagojevich has worked tirelessly to promote initiatives that help Illinois families bring up happy, healthy and successful children. In February of 2005, she launched a literacy initiative program, the Children's Reading Club, with a recommended reading list made up of books the first lady and her daughters enjoy at home. She has selected books such as "The Secret Garden," "Charlotte's Web," "Harriet the Spy" and "Maniac Magee" for the recommended list. Each month's book selection is featured on the first lady's website, http://www.illinois.gov/firstlady. Mrs. Blagojevich began the Children's Reading Club to encourage parents to read with their children and hopes the recommended list will enable parents to find books the whole family can enjoy.

[News release from the governor's office]

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