Yasmin Ayala asked parents to raise their hands if they go to the library with their children.
A few arms went up, but one mother said she didn't take her son because he's only 3.
"It's never too early," Ayala said. "You can start at months."
The parents were attending a monthly class in East Los Angeles sponsored by Reading is Fundamental of Southern California that aimed to teach parents the importance of literacy and help them start building their own libraries at home. Ayala said she encourages parents to read aloud to their children so they will be better prepared for kindergarten.
"Most of them think, 'Why do I need to read to them? That's what teachers are for,' " said Ayala, a student at Cal State L.A. "I tell them they are their child's first teacher."
The bilingual class is held at the federal Women, Infants and Children center, where low-income parents can get nutritional advice and checks for supplemental food. Reading is Fundamental Executive Director Carol Henault said the class takes advantage of time that parents would otherwise spend sitting around waiting to see a program officer.
"We're taking that down time and converting it into meaningful learning," she said.
Reading is Fundamental of Southern California, which started in 1972, runs literacy programs and distributes books to nearly 200 schools, Head Start programs and social service centers throughout Los Angeles County. The classes held at WIC sites, partially funded by a $20,000 grant from the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, reach hundreds of families every year.
Henault said the more money the program receives, the more it can spend on books for the children and their families.
"It's books, books, books," she said. "When books come into the home, it opens the door."
During the class, Ayala urged the parents to pick a time each day to read to their children and ask them questions about the stories. She told them not to worry if the children are bathing, playing or coloring at the same time. She suggested they help their children do literacy activities, such as drawing a turtle after they read a story about a turtle. But she cautioned them not to be critical.
"I'm sure your 2-year-olds aren't Picassos," she said. "That's OK. I'm still in the stick-figure phase."
At the end of the class, each parent received a goody bag with two children's books, an activity book and fliers about reading.
Maria Gomar, 22, said she was glad to get some tips about reading to her children, 4-month-old Anthony and 1-year-old Maribel. Gomar said that she stays busy working at McDonalds and taking care of her family, but that the class reminded her how important reading is.
Another parent, 24-year-old Eva Sosa, said her husband reads to their children, ages 2, 3 and 4, but she rarely does. Sosa said she has only a few children's books at home and was thankful to receive more.
While the parents met with Ayala, their children gathered around a table and listened as volunteer Selina De Leon read to them from picture books, including "Waiting for Wings" and "Clara Caterpillar." Several toddlers listened intently and when De Leon finished one story, they begged for another.
"Read that one!" one child yelled.
"You want me to read the 'Crunching Munching Caterpillar'?" De Leon asked, holding up the book.
"Yeah!" they yelled in unison.
After story time, De Leon helped them create their own butterflies with clothespins and colored tissue paper.
Laurie Hill, supervisor at the WIC site, said the weekly "Play and Learn" activity keeps the children occupied so they don't run around the center.
"We have clients who will come just for that, even if they have already picked up their checks," she said. "We love it."
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