Preparing your child for kindergarten and beyond starts well before the first day of school. 

Because of differences in early childhood environments and experiences, nearly “two-thirds of the achievement gap challenging Oak Park’s schools is in place when children walk through the kindergarten door,” according to the Collaboration for Early Childhood, a public/private partnership that works to improve local early childhood resources.

The first 2,000 days of a child’s life have a huge impact on social, emotional and academic success, says Diana Rosenbrock, an early childhood consultant with the collaboration. The collaboration, in conjunction with more than 70 community partners, assists parents in accessing the resources they need to support early childhood development.

SAY Connect met with Rosenbrock and Cari Christoff, executive director of the Oak Park & River Forest Day Nursery, a collaboration partner, to talk about the importance of early childhood education. 

Q.: Why is early childhood education so important?

Diana: Early childhood is so very important starting from day one because brains are built. They’re not born. The brain is the only organ we’re born with that isn’t fully developed at birth. We have all the brain cells that we will need for the rest of our lives, but they’re not connected. And it is through those early experiences in those first five years that we build the brain. That’s why the early years are so very important. Because without those experiences, those opportunities for the brain to be stimulated and have those brain cells connected, [the brain] doesn’t grow. It actually atrophies.

It’s really important from Day 1 — from the family to early childhood programming — that it be a quality environment so that children are nurtured, loved, stimulated. It’s not just about learning the ABCs and 123s. It’s about the social emotional component of the development of the brain along with those academics that everybody is so familiar with. 

What you’re doing in those first five years is setting the foundation to build upon. [Experts] say 2,000 days from birth, you’ve got to get it right. That equity gap starts at day one 

Cari: Here at the Day Nursery, we have from about two-and-a-half till five [years of a child’s life].  So what we’re able to do in that two-and-a-half years, it seems mind boggling. But it’s actually quite natural. On top of all of those academic skills, we focus on the individual child in helping them to be the best they can be, with those self-help skills. Knowing how to be a member of the community and being an effective member and a participating member and learning empathy and all of those things that without experience, you really can’t be successful in life. How do you know how to tell someone how you feel if you haven’t had that opportunity to learn what that looks like? So we spend a lot of our time in guiding, in giving children the opportunity to explore it. And rather than solving their problems for them, help them to critically think about how they can solve the problem for themselves.

Q.: The human interaction piece then is so essential in those early years.

Diana: Yes, incredibly powerful but it’s not going to happen on its own. There’s all kinds of research that shows what happens when a child just has a steady diet of a screen and non-interaction. It’s truly sad.

Cari: If you think about the swipe. Two-year-olds know how to swipe, but can they hold a pencil? They can listen, but can they articulate? We subscribe to a limit of 30 minutes of screen time per week. That’s it. Because there is so much more to learn that you can’t learn on a screen. 

Q.: What is the magic to getting a child to like reading?

Diana: It’s a long process. It starts at birth. It’s reading to children from Day One. Not only the reading from a book, but the old-fashioned telling of a story is vital. Singing songs, relating words to books, having books in the environment –consistently, constantly — that [books] become part of their everyday life.

Cari: There’s a very big difference in the type of play. Child-directed play is much more beneficial to a child because they’re guiding the learning. Day Nursery teachers and quality program educators look at every child and how they learn and know that every child learns differently. So it’s the goal of that teacher to provide those opportunities so that every child can learn in their way.

Diana: With that, I might add, children aren’t born knowing how to play. They need adults sitting alongside them, modeling, not doing for them, but modeling the play. You have to show them. Play in our society is often looked at as frivolous. It’s not. Play is integral part, whether you’re six months old or 60 years old. Play is important.

Cari: It’s not about the product. It’s the process.

Diana: The key here [at the Day Nursery] is the quality of the programming. Cari and her staff have achieved a gold rating in ExceleRate, which is no small task. ExceleRate (a statewide quality standards system for early learning providers) looks at the teaching and learning, the family and community, the level of interaction with families, the leadership and management of the program and the qualifications of the staff and ongoing professional development. Those things are integral in order to have an environment in which brains can grow and develop. It takes a certain technique of teaching and directing to support the teachers to allow the experiences to happen.

Q.: Talk a bit about children being able to explore the world around them. That’s important, too, isn’t it?

Diana: Today, I walk in and every teacher is at the door with backpacks on. There’s nothing more natural and wonderful than for a child to get outside and learn.

Cari: Two weeks ago they had a community scavenger hunt. We found 20 things within our walkable community that the children photographed what they found. Not only did they explore the community, but they learned to be observant and meet various neighbors we have. They were able to self-direct. There were no parameters.

Q.: What is your teaching staff?

Cari: All of our teachers are bachelor’s level or higher. Almost 50 percent of our staff is master’s level. And in small organizations such as ours, that’s unheard of. We have teachers who have been here 20 years. And in early children, turnover is one to two years. Ten percent of our staff is male. Diversity for us is multilayered. Not only is it racially, ethnically, it’s financial. We call ourselves a school family. We consider ourselves a collective family.

Q.: What else should parents look for in early learning providers?

Diana: The obvious is the rating. Also have a list of questions. Ask how do they handle guidance — a word that we use instead of discipline — how do they handle that? The nutrition schedule? The amount of time indoors, outdoors? How do they handle nap time? Meal issues? You need to be willing to spend time going to different centers, look at what’s going on. If a center doesn’t allow you to do that, check them off your list. Any program that is upfront and honest with what they’re doing and understands the importance is going to invite you in so you can get a gut feeling as to how your child will interact or not in.

Cari: We have a peer coordinator who is the point of contact from the moment a parent calls in to ask questions, Corey Sullivan. He’s amazing. It is really important that families have someone they can connect with. And the first question he asks a family when they walk through the door is: Tell me the one thing you would hope your child gains from an experience here. And he guides their tour based on where they are, rather than data dumping, find out what’s important to them. You as a parent have to find where you feel safe, comfortable and you know your child will get the best benefit.

Q.: Do you feel that you’re getting children ready for kindergarten or something else? 

Cari: What we do here sets the stage for their life. Yes, we are making them ready to tackle what’s coming in kindergarten, but it goes so far beyond that. We have a really good relationship with D97 and we invite a teacher every spring to talk with families about what’s happening next. We want to make that transition as smooth as possible. 

Kindergarten ready is so much more than having an intimate knowledge of your letters and your numbers.

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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