Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version. Does your community have Born Learning Trails? If so, share your experience in the comments box!

Watch, Learn, Stop, Play. Let your child lead the way, reads the sign that now greets families with young children visiting a neighborhood park in Reno, Nevada. The sign then offers suggestions such as, Is your child staring or pointing at something? Ask “What do you see?”  

Welcome to a Born Learning Trail — one of three built in the Reno area since 2013 and among about 400 nationwide across the country located in parks, malls, grocery stores, museum grounds and other public places, thanks to an early childhood education initiative from United Way Worldwide.  

“They help people understand the value of 0-to-5 learning experiences in a way you can’t with pieces of paper or talking. People can feel and understand it from a sensory standpoint,” says Kelsey Piechocki, senior vice president of United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra (UWNNS) — the lead organization for the community’s grade-level reading campaign. 

A visual reminder of the importance of a child’s early years, the trails also have helped involve community volunteers in boosting early literacy, school readiness and physical activity. A dozen or so volunteers, including families and children, can build a trail in a half day, using a toolkit purchased from United Way Worldwide with materials and instructions to create 10 activity stations. 

“It’s a great team builder for that group or company, coming together on a beautiful day outside, working towards the future of all of our children,” says UWNNS President Karen Barsell. 

And the trails call attention to the offerings of the broader Born Learning program, a longstanding United Way Worldwide public engagement campaign, which UWNNS joined in 2006. Designed to help caregivers turn everyday activities into fun opportunities to develop language, talking, reading and singing, the “very rich and deeply researched” program is “all about helping the community change our ability around school readiness,” says Barsell.

The trails in particular drive home the well-researched concept that “if you take a certain approach to playtime, it can lead to true literacy for children,” says Barsell.

Each trail sign describes an activity (Look, Listen, Touch, Think. Learn about the world around you.); ways to do the activity (Try this: Find a flower or a tree. Touch it. Talk about it. Is it hard or soft? Rough or smooth?); and how the activity benefits a child’s development (Games like this will get children’s brains and bodies moving.)

In the Reno area, three trails have been set up in parks: the first is near an urban elementary school and was built by employee groups from a local Target and bank; the second is in a low-income, predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood; and the third is next to an elementary school in the city of Sparks and was built by airport and city employees.

Each trail cost about $2,700 to build, using the toolkit as well as donated labor and other materials. The first two were built with funds raised by the Women’s Leadership Group of UWNNS as well as the Wells Fargo Foundation. Donated materials came from local businesses including a fencing company and paint store. 

Also required was buy-in from various parties, including city officials, school districts and parks departments. One parks department designed Plexiglas covers for the trail signs that combat graffiti. And the parks are tailored to community needs, with two, for example, featuring signs in English and Spanish.

More Born Learning Trails in and around Reno are likely. “Now that we have three in place, there’s a lot of interest in getting them across our region of 13 counties,” says Barsell.

Recalling one trail’s construction, she adds, “They took this park that was a little on the plain side and made it so beautiful. Here all of a sudden is a Born Learning Trail under huge shady trees, a place for families in the neighborhood to bring their kids to learn.”

For more information, contact Karen Barsell at 775-333-8264 or

Photos: United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra; Publication Date: Fall 2014

To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at


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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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