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If you leave a note for Hickory the Storytime Mouse, he’ll be sure to respond.

“Hickory, what is your favorite cake?” wrote Ryan.

“Chocolate and cheese, hee hee!” replied Hickory.

The correspondence was among many posted in the writing section of the new Grow ‘n’ Learn Early Literacy Center at the Onalaska Public Library. Located in the children’s department, the center, funded by the Ben C. and Floyde J. Sias Library Trust, is dedicated to the core concepts of early learning: reading, writing, singing, playing and talking.

The facility, which draws 50 to 60 people each day, was inspired by the Growing Wisconsin Readers Movement and opened in May after three years in development. Designed for children up to age 5 and their parents or guardians, the colorful area is packed with hands-on activities rooted in science, math and reading, and features a “Baby Buds” area with mirrors, toys and a photo wall for the youngest patrons.

“This is a physical space within the library for young children to learn the skills you need before you even start reading,” said Karen Kroll, youth services librarian for the Onalaska Public Library. “It provides a rich experience with sight and sound during this crucial time for brain development.”

Among the learning stations are a costume closet, puppet theater, Duplo (connecting blocks) table and tiny kitchen, each accompanied by related books for check out and parent prompts for engaging their child in conversation and play.

“Adult and child interactions — that ‘together’ component is very important,” Kroll said. “Talk — just talk, talk, talk, is one of the most important things for kids, and play is how children learn. That’s how they find out about the world.”

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Parents are encouraged to help their children “garden” in the toy veggie patch, read a story or recite a rhyme in the Share Chair, or make a sale at the mock market, a favorite of 3-year-old Joelle Minniear and brother Jed, 6, who stopped by the center last week.

“Can I buy this?” Joelle asked, handing Jed a head of plastic cauliflower.

Opening the cash register to make change, Jed said, “This is my favorite (because) I can see how much money I have.”

While the register was a perfect opportunity for math lover Jed to practice adding and subtraction, mom Chin-Chin was appreciative of the abundant labels and signage.

“It’s a nice natural way to introduce words to people who are pre-reading, like Joelle,” she said. “It’s very inviting as a play area that encourages learning. It’s a great addition to the library.”

Kroll says the Early Literacy Center, which is open during regular library hours, has not only increased book check-out, it has drawn in new families who appreciate both the “drop-in” concept and screen-free fun. Families are also welcome to borrow Fun Bags packed with toys, books and educational activities featuring the five concepts outlined in the center. The Early Literacy Center has also provided a valuable volunteer experience for special education students in the Holmen School District, who come in periodically to clean and organize the toys with teacher Nick Slusser.

While currently the only early literacy center in the La Crosse County Library System, the hope is to establish Grown ‘N’ Learns in the other branches as well.

“We think this will have a very big, far-reaching positive impact,” Kroll said. “Both in the Onalaska community and beyond.”

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Adelaida

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