Don Draayer

Don Draayer

Many years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote the widely acclaimed book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”; he recounted life’s lessons such as play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, and don’t take things that aren’t yours, etc. Research moves that clock BACK by more than five years.

Life-learning for the fetus begins immediately after conception. For example, women who drink alcohol or do drugs during pregnancy endanger the development of the fetus, which can give rise to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome — a mix of physical, intellectual, and social-emotional behavior problems. No cure is yet known.

Moreover, millions of brain cells in an infant not stimulated in the first years of life slough off; they disappear! Eighty percent of brain growth happens the first three years of life, 90% by age five.

A true story: During my doctoral program, several of my classmates and their professor went to Bolivia to study why so many children could not learn to read in school. Here is what they observed and concluded.

Many parents — eking out a living in rural, mountainous areas — spent their days tilling their crops. They often placed their infants into sacks which were hung on nearby trees and posts.

Bodily movement, human interaction, and critical brain development in the first months and years of life were thereby lost in the child’s upbringing. Normal cognitive and social-emotional learning by the brain were reduced hereby, causing literary malfunctions.

In America, we don’t put babies and small children into sacks; however, vast numbers of pre-school children are raised in homes/neighborhoods wherein their fullest cognitive and social-emotional development is denied, diminished or misdirected.

Their brain’s learning is negatively altered before the K-12 grades begin, which greatly alters their life potential. It is a personal and societal loss with tremendous social and economic consequences.

Literacy education and social-emotional foundations are laid long before kindergarten! The Minnesota Business Partnership first put its finger unto this challenge years ago, reminding us that our littlest economic units become our work-world adults.

The deficit in rates of formal school learning of children in K-12 classrooms has been titled “the achievement gap”; by association, this lays the blame/shame on K-12 school systems who begin their educational role at age 5. All children learn; those who arrive in kindergarten well prepared learn more and faster, and they soar!

A more appropriate label is “opportunity gap” which rightly includes the tremendous, critical impact of the home/neighborhood in the first five years of life. The ratio of awake hours in homes and neighborhoods compared to K-12 classroom time is nearly 4.0 to 1.0. Add in the five pre-school years, the ratio climbs to nearly 6.0 to 1.0.

As a life-long educator, I am greatly encouraged by the mission/formation/success of the national nonprofit Reach Out and Read, and its Minnesota affiliate ( Its goal is to include an “educational component” into health clinic visits of all parents of babies and pre-school children 0 to 5; their cognitive and social-emotional development will rarely be exceeded again in their lifetime.

Pediatricians and medical personnel hold the respect and have first-row access to all parents, even those from homes/neighborhoods in poverty (due to current day health care laws). Forty percent of Minnesota health clinics now include this new educational component, up from 8% less than 12 years ago.

Parents are advised not only about food for body growth, shots for health care, but also key elements for maximum pre-school brain development: talking; singing; reading; and positive, personal interactions.

An age, language, culturally appropriate book is given to the parent at each health clinic visit with encouragement to read to and with their child. Literacy and social-emotional foundations are formed thereby. Due to bulk purchases, age, language, culturally relevant books cost an average of $2.50, which means for every $100 raised, 40 books can be put into lives of preschool children.

The Excelsior Rotary Club this past year, for one of its service-above-self projects, raised over $40,000 for Reach Out and Read MN and recycled 1,300 age, language, and culturally appropriate books in cooperation with Scenic Heights Elementary School parents and children. The recycled books have been placed in health clinic waiting rooms.

The good news is that hope, and help are being marshaled to help all of our littlest ones learn how to fly … and to soar! The challenge is to make hope and potential blossom for all Minnesota children.

Don Draayer is the former superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools. He retired in 1995. He is a grandfather to five children.

Melissa Turtinen is the multimedia reporter for Lakeshore Weekly News. She's passionate about adding context to stories and informing people about what's going on in their community. She enjoys being outside, traveling and good beer.


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