Expanding your child’s reading, math, and science skills is a walk in the park

Taking a walk in the park could build your child’s literacy skills, physical fitness, and knowledge of science.

A coalition of agencies is placing “Talking Is Teaching” signs in area parks and nature preserves, guiding caregivers to start conversations with children about everything from the natural world to nutrition. Talking is Teaching is a national program.

At the same time, librarians are dismantling books, laminating the pages, and posting the resulting signs throughout an outdoor space to create a “StoryWalk.” StoryWalk also is a national program.

“Talking, reading, and singing with your child is what they need,” says Cora Schaeff Children’s Department Head for the Bay County Library System. “Here at the library, we’re obviously doing that.”

But learning takes place everywhere.

The agencies working on the two projects to bring learning into the parks this summer include the Bay County Library System, Bay-Arenac ISD, Great Start Collaborative, City of Bay City, Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy, Saginaw Valley State University, and the Saginaw Intermediate School District.

Rich Van Tol, who leads several early childhood education programs at the Bay-Arenac ISD, says he is happy to see different parts of the community working together to create opportunities. The efforts target everyone in a child’s world, from parents and grandparents to paid caregivers.

“There’s a lot happening and it’s all to achieve the same goal,” Van Tol says. “The point to be made here is we have increased partnerships.”

The new programs continue alongside long-time standard early literacy efforts such as story times. Summer is a good time to debut these types of programs.

The U.S. Department of Education defines the summer slide as the learning kids lose if they don’t engage in educational activities over the summer. Don’t despair, though. Combating the summer slide is not only easy, it’s also fun.

Below are some of the opportunities waiting for families this summer:

Talking is Teaching

Schaeff says talking, singing, and reading all form the foundation for kids to learn to read. But it’s not always to strike up a conversation with an infant. 

That’s where the national program Talking is Teaching enters the story. The signs give adults ideas about what to say. For example, the signs at the Alice and Jack Wirt Public Library, 500 Center Ave., encourages people to notice the sounds of a bustling downtown. 

Talking is Teaching is a permanent installation at several Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy preserves, says Zachary Branigan, CEO of the SBLC. Signs are posted at Riverbend West Nature Area near Defoe Park, the Michigan Sugar Trails on the Middlegrounds, and at Discovery Preserve and Nature Playground.

“We tried to grab all the ones that were nature focused, seasons and things like that,” Branigan says. 

At Discovery Preserve and Nature Playground, 1701 S. Euclid Ave., the signs suggest visitors talk about the rain. It asks kids (and parents) to sing in the rain, come up with rainy-day activities, and even discuss the sounds the raindrops make.

The SBLC also designed the signs and helped with the installments. 

“It’s early childhood focused and for a lot of our nature preserves, it’s one more point of engagement. It made a lot of sense,” Branigan says.

The signs don’t change, but the conversations will change as children grow and learn about the world. “It’s a neat little project,” says Tim Botzau, who runs the Bay City Parks Department. “I’m glad they looped us into it.


To create a StoryWalk, librarians take apart a book and laminate the pages. The pages are put on signs in a park. Families move through the park, reading the story as they go. 

StoryWalks are available throughout the summer in parks and outside branches of the Bay County Library System.

Photo courtesy of Talking is TeachingAt Sage Branch Library, 100 E. Midland St., the librarians tied the laminated pages to trees and brought in all kinds of trucks – utility trucks, dump trucks, and the like – for kids to explore before, during, or after reading the story. In December, StoryWalks were organized around downtown stores in conjunction with Sundays in the City. 

The Saginaw Intermediate School District (ISD) provides the program “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds” to elementary age students and parents in Bay, Saginaw, Arenac, and Iosco county schools. The goal of the program is to increase fruit/vegetable consumption and physical activity among students and their families. Joshua Miller runs the Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds nutrition education program for the Saginaw ISD.

“There is a need for nutrition education in the schools and we are trying to do our best to meet that need,” Miller says.

During the academic year, the program sends nutrition representatives into 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms a few weeks at a time. These representatives talk to kids, teachers, and parents about nutrition and physical fitness.

It’s not a lecture, though. Instead, the program makes the lessons fun. 

Miller recently set up a StoryWalk in Wenonah Park featuring the book “I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato” by Lauren Child. The book tells the tale of a brother (Charlie) tricking his sister (Lola) into eating healthy foods. Charlie tells Lola that carrots are twiglets from Jupiter, for example.

“The whole thing is we want to bring people to the parks doing a family-oriented activity,” Miller says.

The StoryWalks in Bay County are temporary. The signs aren’t designed to last a Michigan winter. The stories will change weekly and the same story is never displayed in two different parks at the same time. However, families might catch the same story in different parks at different times.

In Saginaw County’s St. Charles Coal Miner’s Park, there is a permanent StoryWalk. The featured books regularly change, but the signs are durable enough to stay posted all year, Miller says.

In Bay County, the stories will be available from Thursday through Tuesday in Wenonah Park until Sept. 5. They will be placed in other parks around town including Bigelow Park on July 20; Carroll Park on July 27; Pershing Park on Aug. 3; Birney Park on Aug. 10; Veterans Memorial Park on Aug. 17; Battery Park on Aug. 24; and Riverwalk West Side, South, on Aug. 31.

Bay County Library System Story Times

Think story time is sitting in a quiet library while someone reads and story and shushes the kids? Think again.

“We’re meeting kids where they’re at,” Schaeff says.

You’d expect story times inside each of the Bay County Library System branches – Wirt, Sage, Pinconning, and Auburn. They happen there and include stories, music, activities, sometimes even food. The full schedule is online.

Story times also happen outside the library walls. Schaeff says she’s held storytimes in local coffee shops. Parents can socialize and enjoy a specialty drink while the kids are entertained and hear a story. 

Schaeff’s hope is that the traveling story times benefit kids, parents, and the businesses. She also stresses that families can come to story times inside businesses without making a purchase.

Family Literacy Nights

For caregivers still working on their own high school diploma or GED, Noel E. Kelty, an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Saginaw Valley State University, says early childhood literacy activities are especially beneficial.

“We’re not only supporting the learning and literacy development of the young child, but we’re also supporting the literacy development of parents and grandparents,” Kelty says.

That’s why SVSU's Great Lakes Bay Region Family Initiative offers admission-free Family Literacy Nights that include food, activities, goodies, gas cards, and more . Upcoming events include Thurs., Aug. 3 at the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland; Thurs., Aug. 17 at the Saginaw Children’s Zoo; and Thurs., Sept. 21 at the Mount Pleasant Discovery Museum. Details and registration are available online.

“These event are really being targeted heavily toward families where the parents are working on their own learning goals as well,” Kelty says. “These have been pretty highly attended three-generation events.”

Reaching families where the adults have limited education is especially impactful, Kelty says.

“We have a fair number of families who not only don’t have high school diplomas, but they also have a lot of children,” Kelty says.

“There are a huge number of kids who are being raised by parents who don’t have high school diplomas or GEDs. That was the thing that really hit me. We need to make a bigger impact if we’re going to change some of these generational cycles of literacy.”

When families register for the events, they are asked if they are taking advantage of other community services or if they need additional help. Typically, the parents are looking for help raising their children.

The goal of these programs is that each family member emerges more educated, with economic self-sufficiency skills, and an understanding of better parenting practices. 

Of course the nights aren’t just for families working together toward educational goals. Families of all educational levels can benefit from the activities.

“We have so many parents who have been impacted by the Talking is Teaching points,” Kelty says.  “Everything we do is geared toward fostering adult-child interaction.”

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

Bay and Arenac county children under 5 years old can sign up for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. Learn more about the program in this Feb. 2, 2023 Route Bay City article.

Text To Learn

The library even provides in-home services through a national, free Text To Learn program. Text TALK to 75547 and you’ll get messages suggesting activities to get kids ready for school. For example, one message invited parents gather books at home, issue a pretend library card, and let kids check out the books. Another encouraged kids to host a story time for their favorite stuffed animals. 

During the school year, the library offers science-based literacy programs with the elementary schools. Schaeff says it’s not hard to replicate these at home. Bake cookies with your child for a tasty in science, reading, math, and the ability to follow instructions. 

My First Library Card 

Is your child in the “I do it” stage? The library can help. Any child who lives in Bay County can bring a parent or guardian to any branch to sign up for his or her own card. Bring a piece of mail with the current name and address to complete the process. 

The child receives a card with an ID holder and a lanyard. The librarians will clap, cheer, and celebrate along with your child. 

Library cards connect patrons to books, games, and music. For children, the card builds confidence and encourages them to explore new interests and skills, Schaeff says.

None of these programs are exclusively for parents. Everyone in a child’s life plays a role in literacy.

“Even if it’s a Grandma or Grandpa or aunt or uncle, all those moments matter,” Schaeff says. “Books make a difference in children’s lives.”
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com