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‘Seedlings’ promote kindergarten readiness in this N.C. classroom

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Inside a classroom at the Ashe Early Learning Center, a group of small children sit in a circle with their teacher to learn about the alphabet, but how they go about learning their letters is what makes this lesson unique — and fun. 

These children have Seedlings, small touchpads loaded with learning games. Distributing the Seedlings to schools, care centers, state and local agencies, and families is the mission of ApSeed, a nonprofit founded by former State Board of Education member Greg Alcorn that seeks to prepare underserved children ages 3 and 4 for kindergarten through interactive games teaching letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. 

For this classroom game, a child holds a Seedling displaying a letter over their head, and asks their classmate and teacher questions about the letter like, “does my letter make the ‘W-uh’ sound?” or “does my letter come after ‘V’ in the alphabet?”

Children play a guessing game with letters on their Seedlings at Ashe Early Learning center on Jan. 26, 2024. Laura Browne/EducationNC

The child can then use the answers as clues to determine the mystery letter. Once the letter is correctly guessed, they can trace the letter on the Seedling tablet, successfully learning a portion of the alphabet while using visual, auditory, and tactile skills.

What makes this game and these Seedling touchpads even more special is that the devices were given to Ashe County Schools, and many other locations across North Carolina and beyond, at no cost. 

Over 22,000 Seedlings have been distributed to children since 2016, according to ApSeed. The nonprofit distributes them for free to families and locations such as Head Starts, pre-K programs, child care services, at special events, health care practices, or WIC centers.  

ApSeed currently serves 16 counties in North Carolina, four counties in South Carolina, and other locations in California, New York, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. 

Funding for ApSeed comes from grants and private donations as well as from government appropriations. In 2022, the General Assembly allocated $2.5 million to ApSeed, which in turn provided service for about 12,000 children.

Making a ‘big hairy audacious goal’

ApSeed is part of what Alcorn calls a “big hairy audacious goal,” or “BHAG.” Alcorn said a BHAG is something to achieve on the macro-level at least 10 years out that requires leadership and helps to create a future that would otherwise be impossible. 

A BHAG for ApSeed is to promote higher graduation rates to create a well-educated workforce for the future of the state and elsewhere by starting early with a community’s youngest learners. Alcorn emphasized that those who graduate high school are more likely to have higher wages once entering the workforce.

Alcorn said when a student is able to succeed academically early on, the success continues to have a ripple effect throughout the child’s educational journey.

“If you’re pretty good at pre-K you’ve got a good chance of being a good kindergartener, right? And then if you’re good at kindergarten, you’ve got a pretty good chance at first grade,” Alcorn said.

Helping children succeed is a priority for ApSeed, Alcorn said, but helping communities succeed is an additional priority, he said. When schools have success, that encourages others to reside in that area, he said, benefiting that community.

Alcorn is working toward a return on investment, hoping to see long term-results that start with a child first beginning to learn.

Dr. Eisa Cox, superintendent of Ashe County Schools, said increasing the area’s graduation rates is part of her district’s strategic plan, and that effort is a dedication that begins with early learning. Cox said if a child is unprepared for kindergarten, they will be less likely to graduate.

“It’s a long-term commitment to how we support families and how we support learning, from the time they begin learning clear through postsecondary education,” Cox said. “We want kids to graduate ready with skills and the knowledge and the confidence that they can do whatever they want.”

Planting a Seedling

Terry Richardson, director of exceptional children and pre-k programs for Ashe County Schools, said the opportunity for multi-sensory learning on the Seedlings is important as children develop their unique learning styles. 

“It’s auditory, tactile, and visual. Every child learns in a different way. We don’t know what their learning style is until we get them and we are teaching, and to see what their learning style is,” Richardson said. “They can learn every area of literacy and math on the ApSeed tool through the visual, the tactile, or the auditorial because it’s integrated within each app.”

Young students learn on their Seedlings in the classroom at Ashe Early Learning Center. Laura Browne/EducationNC
A child practices tracing the letter ‘W’ on their seedling. Laura Browne/EducationNC
Young students learn on their Seedlings in the classroom at Ashe Early Learning Center. Laura Browne/EducationNC
Young students learn on their Seedlings in the classroom at Ashe Early Learning Center. Laura Browne/EducationNC

The Seedlings come preloaded with games and have no Wi-Fi or camera capabilities to ensure safety and promote the age-appropriate learning of the child using it. 

Each Seedling comes with headphones, a charger, information for families on kindergarten readiness, and a protective case with a handle.

The touchpads have a variety of games that range in difficulty levels from “baby games” all the way to multiplication for those children seeking to explore extra challenges. Colorful and happy cartoon animals serve as the mascots for the games and cheer the students on when a question is answered correctly.

Richardson recalled getting goosebumps during an ApSeed distribution event that brought out over 500 families, and said she has seen children with Seedlings around her community.

 “I’ve gone to different activities in the community and you’ll see kids carrying little ApSeed around and things like that because it’s such an engaging, appropriate learning tool for literacy and math that are developmentally appropriate for their ages,” Richardson said.