Originally published Dec. 10, 2012.
The children sit in the middle of a rug in a darkened room, wiggling and squirming for a better view as each letter on the rug's border gets its time in the spotlight.
"Does anyone know what letter this is?" asks Jan Perkins, a one-woman tech crew wielding a flashlight.
Some of the children do; some don't. They slide over to the spotlight and study the letter intently, sometimes using their fingers to trace the letter's outline.
Finally, one of the youngsters shouts a triumphant "B!"
"That's right," says Perkins, who's been leading the Alphabet Zoo at the Huntington City-Township Public Library since mid-summer.
The youngsters on the rug are 3, maybe 4 years old. They're having a good time - and they're preparing themselves for a lifetime of learning.
The goal of the monthly 45-minute sessions, Per- kins explains, is "that they will know their letters and the sounds of the letters so they're ready for school."
Alphabet Zoo is one component of the library's "Every Child Ready to Read" program, addressing one of the six reading readiness skills children can begin mastering even as infants.
"One of the skills is ‘learn your letters,'" Perkins says. "This is a fun way to do it."
Perkins, a veteran library staffer, created the Alphabet Zoo program for the local library using both purchased and hand-made materials.
"I just made it up," she says. "It wasn't difficult. What I did for this is take this one skill, letter knowledge, and make it into a physical thing."
"She's too modest," says Mary Glass, whose 3-year-old daughter Peyton Glass spent a recent morning learning her letters as she tossed balls, plucked rubber ducks from a water-filled bowl and made alphabet imprints in Play-Doh. "She's awesome."
Glass says she and her daughter are also regulars at the library's story times, which Perkins explains also incorporate pre-reading skills as the toddlers listen to and interact with stories.
"She's not old enough for preschool," Glass says of her daughter. Alphabet Zoo provides Peyton with a chance to interact with other preschoolers as well as learn about letters. "And it gives her something to look forward to."
Pat Maher also likes the social aspect of Alphabet Zoo for his 3-year-old daughter, Macie Maher.
"I think it helps her social skills," he says. "She stays at home, and here she gets out to mingle with other kids."
Macie is also learning her numbers and letters, he adds.
Stacey Stetzel says her 3-year-old son, Noah Stetzel, is learning his colors and ABCs through Alphabet Zoo.
"And he's learning how to play with other kids," she says. "We love coming to the library."
Each session begins with a 10-minute session in the library's "story pit," where Perkins leads a couple of songs.
"The first song we do in the pit is just learning the sounds of the letters," she explains. "We highlight one letter a month, but we investigate all the letters."
Then she turns the kids and their caregivers loose in the activity room, where a variety of activity centers are set up.
"They can visit whatever center they want for as long as they want," she says.
Some of the activities are simple - picking out a ball, identifying the letter on the ball and tossing the ball to a partner.
Others, including manipulating magnetic letters to make three-letter words, are more challenging.
"Even if they don't know how to spell, they know their letters," Perkins says.
At one station, the preschoolers painstakingly write their names on a dry-erase board, but that's the only activity that actually involves picking up a writing instrument.
That's intentional, she says.
"A lot of them don't have the manual dexterity to write a letter, especially boys," she says.
Alphabet Zoo sessions are held on the first Thursday of each month at the Huntington library. Participants must register in advance by calling the library at 356-2900.