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Alexa Mickelson, daughter of John and Lisa Mickelson, walks along a foam balance beam during a portion of SMART training. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

SMART helps preschoolers in Frazee

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"Get ready, hug your body, arms out -- spin!," said Cindy Ross, an early childhood and family education teacher at Frazee Elementary School.

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Ross isn't directing her Kinderquest -- 4-year-old -- students to play. It's part of the SMART curriculum launched at the school a few years ago.

SMART stands for Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training.

"It's for all kids across the board," said Frazee ECFE coordinator Karrie Schultz.

Schutlz said that SMART training is about stimulating a child's brain.

The aims of SMART are to reinforce children's natural body movements.

SMART started in the mid-1980s through A Chance to Grow, a non-profit agency based in Minneapolis. It was first offered as a summer program and then expanded to kindergarten children in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Minneapolis Public Schools found that a lot of children were struggling in first grade, even though they completed a full year of kindergarten.

An experiment of sending some students through the SMART curriculum showed on the surface that it paid off. While kids read well even if they didn't go through SMART training, A Chance to Grow found that students who went through the program kept reading at a high level throughout their early schooling years.

The children in the ECFE program go through several different exercises that mix together movement, coordination and learning.

"It looks to give each child success they can achieve," Schultz said.

Activities can range from controlled spinning within a circle, touching knees to your nose from a sit-up position or spending time in a dark room with one object lit up.

"It's not just physical," Schultz said. "It has a purpose."

The dark room helps the children learn letters and numbers. The teacher gathers the children in a small room, turns out the main light and the letters or numbers show up when an ultraviolet light is turned on.

"There's a lot of focusing going on and a lot of tension," Ross said.

The black light, Ross said, mimics the intensity that kids experience when watching television commercials.

Another aspect to the light room is using a spinning light -- something as simple as a battery-operated toy. The children concentrate on the spinning lights for several seconds at a time.

"When the eyes are dilating and constricting, it brings the intensity into focusing," Ross said. "That's my understanding of it.

"It's not to be used as a teaching tool, per se, but with them learning the alphabet, we find them retaining what they learn."

Children also trace out different patterns with their fingers. The patterns may be letters or just a shape.

"We're seeing if the eyes work together," Ross said. "It's helping them with pre-writing."

One part of the training just involves children stepping on different patterns on the floor, doing an action with their arms and saying something, all at the same time.

That exercise tries to get the children to use both sides of their brain.

"There's children who cannot cross the midline," Ross said. "And that's a whole brain connection issue."

She said that kids who cannot do that might need occupational therapy to help them overcome their limitations.

According to the Minnesota Learning Resource Center, which promotes the SMART program, children now don't have many opportunities to learn how their body's work as they are often sedentary.

The MLRC said that research indicated children between the ages of 2 and 4 spend four hours a day watching television.

That missed time can stunt a child developing his or her own coordination.

"If anyone misses any of these parts early in their development, this really helps them practice that," Ross said. "A lot of children who have not spent a lot of time on their tummy miss a lot of these actions.

"We think it helps them focus better. It brings them all together."

While it's not a miracle learning method, Ross said that many kids show some improvement going through the different steps.

A tough one for some of the kids is an exercise where they lie on the floor, and try to raise their arms and legs for 10 seconds. They repeat the cycle once.

"We always find one child or two that find it fairly difficult," Ross said.

By the end of a school year, though, Ross said that most of the children who have difficulty at first pick it up.

As with any aspect of the SMART program, not every child shows improvement.

"It's not going to work that way on every one of them, but a lot of them, it appears to make a difference," Ross said.

Schultz said that the program is simple to understand and some parts can be done at home.

"It's helpful to do it right away in the morning," she said.

Home activities can include riding a bike, tumbling, playing catch or jacks, kicking a ball and playing hopscotch.

"It's something that makes sense," Schultz said of SMART.

More information on SMART training is available on the Web at www.themlrc.org.

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