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There are few data points more haunting than this one offered up at a recent early childhood forum convened by HealthPartners and the Greater Twin Cities United Way.

"The number one predictor for who will be in prison at age 18 is the number of words in their vocabulary at kindergarten," according to keynote speaker George Halvorson. Halvorson is a former Minnesota health care executive who now chairs the pioneering First 5 California commission, which promotes and supports educational development in a child's first five years.

That vocabulary can be such a powerful predictor of a child's life path ought to both sober and inspire Minnesotans. It's heartbreaking to know that little ones behind before they even reach education's starting line may suffer the consequences far into the future. But at the same time, that knowledge gives family, friends, educators and the community a chance to intervene with ordinary, readily available remedies — such as reading books, singing songs and playing games with kids.

That's why the "Bright Futures Begin at Birth" forum, held last month at St. Paul's RiverCentre, provided such a valuable public service. As Halvorson pointed out, advances in neurological science have demonstrated how important the first three years of life are for brain development. "The children who have had their brains exercised in those first months and years have more neuron connections for life — and they have stronger brains,'' he said.

The challenge is bringing this information out of scientific journals and sharing it with families, especially in communities with poor educational outcomes. There's a pressing need to increase awareness that reading, singing and talking to a child is critical far earlier than most realize.

"Exercising" the brain, as Halvorson puts in, begins at infancy. A baby may not understand the words a caregiver is reading. But the activity nonetheless still helps a growing brain. The one-on-one attention that goes with reading a book or singing a song also sets the stage for a youngster to enjoy learning.

Holding the "Bright Futures Begin at Birth" forum was an excellent way to focus Minnesotans' on this critical knowledge. About 500 educators, medical providers, public-health professionals and parents attended. The involvement of HealthPartners and other medical providers makes perfect sense. Many Minnesota health systems already are involved in the national "Reach Out and Read" program, which provides books to children to bolster wellness. Bright Futures builds on that foundation.

The HealthPartners and Greater Twin Cities United Way partnership is exploring additional strategies to build awareness of early learning, but families don't have to wait for the next formal steps. Consistently reading, singing songs and playing are simple activities that lay the foundation for future success. Said HealthPartners CEO Mary Brainerd: "That message needs to be out there and in as many places as possible.''