Getting ready for school

How one program is training mothers, aunts and grandmothers in the ABCs of child care

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

On a recent morning, 15 women gathered in a mint green classroom at First Lutheran Church in Longmont to learn more about the fundamentals of child care. They talked about mapping out daily schedules with time for reading activities, group play, meals and naps. They traded tips about the inexpensive educational materials available at Dollar Tree stores.

This was no Saturday morning babysitting boot camp. It was part of a 120-hour training course that will eventually earn participants a national child care credential.

What made the class unique was the women enrolled. Ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something, they were Spanish-speaking mothers, aunts and grandmas who care for the young children of friends and relatives in their homes. Some do it for free. Others earn a small wage.

Most are undocumented immigrants, and as a result not eligible to become licensed childcare providers in Colorado. Still, they are a critical part of Colorado’s early childhood workforce — one that is often overlooked in the policy realm.

In Colorado and nationally, so-called Family, Friend and Neighbor care is legal and ubiquitous. It cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines, with many parents choosing it because they know and trust the caregiver. While more than half of young Colorado children with working parents receive such care, the providers are often isolated and invisible.

“There’s not a database. They’re not connected to any system,” said Liz Houston, executive director of the Early Childhood Colorado Leadership Alliance.

This under-the-radar existence has meant little public awareness or support for such providers — and by extension the thousands of children in their care.

Two PASO participants work on an activity together at a recent class in Longmont.
Two PASO participants work on an activity together at a recent class in Longmont.

But with the growing push to make sure children are ready for school no matter what kind of child care they get, that’s changing.

The training session in Longmont is one example. It’s part of a program called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO, run by the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. Funded mostly by grant money in four Front Range locations, it’s received national notice and represents one of the few initiatives targeted to Spanish-speaking providers.

“There’s not another program that’s as intensive as PASO out there,” said Valerie Gonzales, director of operations for the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition.

There are other efforts, too, several coordinated by some the state’s early childhood councils. One, launched by the Denver Early Childhood Council with private grant money, was a shorter, less formal series of trainings for Family, Friend and Neighbor providers in two Denver neighborhoods. Both drew Spanish-speaking providers, although they were open to all providers. The Boulder, Arapahoe and Weld county councils have also led the way in working with Family, Friend and Neighbor providers, Houston said.

Houston’s organization, which works on behalf of Colorado’s 31 councils, also embarked on a recent effort to help unlicensed providers. Using $250,000 in federal money, the group awarded mini-grants to some Family, Friend and Neighbor providers who were seeking to become licensed.

Empowering providers

While the women in the church classroom got ready to break for lunch, PASO graduate Maria Perez recounted her own experience in the program six years ago.

Maria Perez, a PASO graduate, cares for children of current PASO participants.
Maria Perez, a PASO graduate, cares for children of current PASO participants.

She was caring for her aunt’s three children as well as two of her own at the time.

“We didn’t know anything when we started,” she said. “It’s true. The first day I came I was like, ‘Wow, we know nothing about early education.”

But she stuck with it, earning a perfect attendance certificate and coming to appreciate how each class connected to the last like a series of train cars. Today, Perez, who arrived here from Mexico 11 years ago, heads the team that provides child care in the church nursery during PASO classes. She seeks out other PASO graduates to assist her because she knows they’re well-trained.

Perez is an enthusiastic evangelist for the program and the parent empowerment it promotes. Since she took the course, which is led by instructors known as “tias” or aunts, she’s referred 10 other women.

She also urges parents of her young charges to get involved in their kids’ schools and in the community. She points to her 17-year-old son — a responsible boy who’s helpful with his younger siblings and taking Advanced Placement classes at school.

“This is thanks to the fact that I am always involved,” she said. “And I am always trying to learn in any program…I always tell that to the parents; ‘Go to the classes and pay attention.’”

Flor Marquez, community engagement coordinator for Denver’s Early Childhood Council, found the same kind of enthusiasm in the training sessions she led in northeast and southwest Denver over the summer.

Participants, who learned about topics such as child abuse prevention, nutrition and discipline, saw the power in educating themselves, she said.

“They didn’t want the group to end,” she said

In fact, the southwest Denver group didn’t end. The women in it decided to keep meeting weekly even after its official conclusion. There’s no more grant money to support it, but Marquez helps out when she can.

Expensive work

Preliminary findings from an outside evaluation also show PASO is working. Besides significantly increasing providers’ scores on performance assessments, it showed that children in their care made gains too, especially on social-emotional skills.

It’s not cheap. The classes, coaching and materials cost about $10,000 per person.

“There is sticker shock,” said Gonzales.

Currently, PASO is grant-funded and gets some additional dollars from the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts. In Aurora, the program is now on hiatus because the grant money recently ran out.

Gonzales wishes state money were available to help.

Some critics have argued that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve such support, but Gonzales notes that the children served by such providers are typically born here and will attend school here. Most come from low-income Latino families and will be on the wrong side of the achievement gap if they don’t get a strong start.

Marquez said much of the state funding available to help child care providers improve is focused on those who are already licensed or heading in that direction.

“I definitely think it creates a huge challenge…because these are grassroots programs that require a lot of time and effort for recruitment and sustainability,” she said.

With no master list of Family, Friend and Neighbor providers, groups that want to work with them spend lots of time on outreach — going to churches, laundromats, community events and even door-to-door.

Houston, who is hoping to secure another round of state funding for mini-grants, said while the state has done a tremendous job making improvements to its licensed child care system, more needs to be done for Family, Friend and Neighbor providers.

“It’s in the best interest of all of us to support providers across the board,” she said.

Nature's classroom

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A girl plays during a Worldmind Nature Immersion School class at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

A 2½-year-old boy named Ben was ankle-deep in a Jefferson County creek when suddenly he lost his footing and plopped onto his bottom in the cold shallow water. The fall didn’t faze him. Neither did his dripping shorts. He got up and kept playing.

About a dozen children frolicked in or near the creek that day — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, building dams with sticks and mud, or inspecting bugs that flitted nearby.

It was a typical day at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, one of a growing number of programs where toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners spend all their time outside — no matter the weather.

“When children look like they’re playing in nature, huge amounts of learning is taking place,” said Erin Kenny, founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association and the co-founder of a pioneering outdoor preschool program in Washington state.

Established first in Scandinavia, such “forest schools” occupy a steadily expanding niche in the American early-childhood landscape. But even with the movement’s popularity, advocates wonder if it can reach beyond the homogenous slice of families — mostly middle-class and white — it now serves.

Advocates like Kenny lament the academic push found in many traditional preschools and say that young children thrive outdoors — developing independence, resilience, and other valuable social-emotional skills.

Parents say their kids like the expansive space, non-stop play, and dearth of rules in outdoor classes. And as long as they’re dressed for the conditions, they take rain, snow, or frigid temperatures in stride.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, pretends her preschool students are penguin chicks.

“I think it’s great to come in bad weather,” said Denver parent Tracy Larson, who has two children in the Worldmind class. “It makes us go outside when we’re at home in bad weather too … You’re not afraid of it.”

Forest schools nationwide face significant regulatory and logistical barriers to expanding their footprint — and serving students of color and those from low-income families.

“This movement is not going to move forward or it’s going to be stigmatized if we don’t rapidly move the needle from white middle-class to all-inclusive,” said Kenny.

Perhaps the most immediate problem is that states have no rules for outdoor-based programs that serve young children and thus, no way to grant them child care licenses. Besides signaling that programs meet basic health and safety rules, a license opens the door to state subsidies that help low-income families pay for child care.

In Colorado, the inability to get licensed means that forest schools can only have up to four young children in a class or, as is the case at Worldmind, must require parents to stay for each session. But licensing rules here could soon change. The same is true in Washington state, where there are dozens of outdoor preschool programs.

Government officials in both states are working with outdoor preschool providers as part of pilot programs that could lead to creating a child care license for outdoor preschools. The idea is to ensure children’s safety without stamping out the creek-wading, tree-climbing sensibilities that make the programs what they are.

Kenny said there are now around 50 forest preschools in the U.S. and another 200 “nature schools,” which put a major emphasis on outdoor learning but have buildings, too. Colorado and Washington are the only ones she knows of that are actively exploring special licensing classifications for outdoor preschools, but hopes their pilot programs will build momentum nationally.

“I used to feel I was riding the crest of a wave,” she said. “Now I feel the wave has crashed and it’s moving in ripples everywhere.

Testing the model

In Colorado, two providers — Worldmind and a Denver-based program called The Nursery School — are participating in the state pilot program. It starts this month for the Nursery School and in August for Worldmind. Both providers will be allowed to serve up to 10 children ages 3 to 6 during half-day sessions without parents present. The schools must adhere to a staff-student ratio of 1 to 5 — stricter than what is required in a traditional preschool.

They’ll also have to abide by other rules, including keeping tree-climbing children within arm’s reach and seeking indoor shelter in extreme weather.

In addition, both programs will track heaps of data, ranging from hourly weather changes to the circumstances behind any wildlife encounters or potty accidents. State licensing officials will also visit each program regularly. The pilot will run through February — to capture all kinds of Colorado weather — with a licensing decision possible in the summer of 2019.

Matt Hebard, a former preschool teacher and early childhood school district administrator, launched The Nursery School with Brett Dabb last fall at Denver’s Bluff Lake Nature Center. In recent weeks, the handful of children enrolled there have spotted newly hatched goslings and mule deer, and made “snowmen” with fluff from cottonwood trees.

The two men first conceived of the school in 2013 during their time in an early childhood leadership program and soon after discovered the long, bureaucracy-laden road to state recognition. There were waiver applications, denials, a hearing before the state attorney general, and even a look at whether state legislation would further the cause of outdoor preschools in Colorado.

“It’s been slow going,” but worthwhile, Hebard said. “It’s going to allow other practitioners to open outdoor preschools … It’s going to give parents another option.”

A child plays in the limbs of a tree at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

Megan Patterson, a former elementary school teacher in Alaska and Colorado, launched Worldmind in 2015 — complying with state rules by offering “child and caregiver” classes at local parks and botanical gardens in Boulder County and metro Denver.

“I studied urban ecology in Boston and after that I realized … how important it is to connect kids to places around where they live,” she said. “I finally found the type of education I believe in 100 percent.”

State officials say they have been approached by other outdoor preschool providers interested in the pilot, but don’t plan to expand it beyond the two programs, and the roughly 40 children they’ll serve during the pilot period.

“We feel the model needs to be even more rigorous in the state of Colorado,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of the state’s early care and learning division in the office of early childhood.

She said while forest schools are popular in United Kingdom — where leaders of Worldmind and The Nursery School have both attended special teacher training courses — Colorado weather and terrain pose different challenges

“We all love the outdoors, but we all know how dangerous it is and we’re trying to strike a balance with that license type,” she said.

A sense of freedom

The recent Worldmind class where 2-year-old Ben plopped in the creek took place at Matthews/Winters Park in Golden on a warm, sunny May morning. While Patterson offered some general structure to the dozen kids in attendance — a snack break, a brief discussion of a picture book they’d read, and a chance to feel animal pelts, the kids were mostly free to do what they wanted.

Their parents lingered nearby, chatting with each other, chasing after younger siblings, or joining their kids in the creek or on a green tarp laid out nearby. It felt like a big, free-flowing playdate in the woods.

To be sure, there were the usual little-kid frustrations. One small girl, after repeatedly scrambling up the bank of the creek without much trouble, was reduced to tears once her hands went from merely dirty to muddy.

Worldmind’s upcoming pilot program class will look similar to the child and caregiver class, though without the parents. It will take place at Denver’s City Park, with the adjacent Denver Museum of Nature and Science serving as a backup in case of extreme weather.

Several parents who attended the recent class at Matthews/Winters Park said they planned to send their children to the pilot program. They often used the same word to describe why they liked the outdoor classes: Freedom.

Brittany Courville, of Lakewood, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter Siena to her first Worldmind session after the family relocated to Colorado from Texas a few years ago. The move had been jarring for the then 2-year-old, but the outdoor class seemed to restore her spirits.

“She loved it … It was freezing and she didn’t want to leave,” said Courville. “You know, you go to library story times — ‘Sit down. Do this. Do that’ — and she came here and there were other kids she could play with and also be herself and just explore.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent “forest school” class.

Brit Lease, a Denver resident and the mother of 2-year-old Ben, has friends who are excited that their daughter’s preschool has pledged she’ll be reading on a first-grade level by the time she starts kindergarten. But Lease doesn’t want that for Ben.

“What social-emotional learning did they miss out on or interpersonal kinds of things did they miss out on because they were so focused on learning how to read?” she asked.

While she talked, Ben growled like a tiger and showed off his “sword” — fashioned out of two thin branches bound together with black cord.

“My theory right now is just let them be kids as long as they can because it does start sooner,” Lease said. “Kindergarten is no joke anymore.”

A bigger tent

While Patterson launched Worldmind with a primary focus on getting kids outside, she’s lately shifted her goals. The organization is revamping its mission to aim for racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and ability diversity.

If Worldmind becomes licensed, she also plans to accept state child-care subsidies. Tuition for four half-days of forest school during the fall semester of the pilot project runs about $2,900.

But like other outdoor preschool providers, Patterson knows the typical part-day forest school schedule doesn’t work for everybody.

In part to accommodate working parents, Patterson hopes by the fall of 2019 to open a brick-and-mortar child care center that would still focus on outdoor learning, while enabling Worldmind to serve infants and toddlers, and offer full-day care for children up to age 6.

Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, talks with two children while others play nearby.

Hebard said he doesn’t plan to accept child-care subsidies because they come with requirements he thinks don’t apply to an outdoor preschool model. These include evaluating students using a state-approved assessment tool.

Still, he would eventually like to raise money for a scholarship program. But with only a handful of tuition-paying families enrolled now and much of his extra time spent working nights at UPS Inc., that reality could be a ways off.

“It would be nice to have a broader demographic,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for any child.”

Nationally, some forest preschools have come up with creative ways to open their doors to a wider slice of their communities. For example, the Forest Freedom School, based in Oakland, gives students of a color a 30 percent break on tuition. It’s billed as the “Struggle Is Real” discount.

Aside from financial obstacles, there can be cultural barriers that make outdoor preschools perplexing or unthinkable for some families. These may include worries that children will get sick if they spend time in the rain and cold or simply the sense that school isn’t an outdoor activity.

Hebard said a colleague at another organization told him about concerns voiced by parents about plans to replace the preschool’s brightly colored plastic play equipment with a nature-themed playground. Some of the parents worked outside all day and were put off by the idea of their children playing in the dirt at school.

Overcoming those perceptions will take parent education and outreach to local groups that work with communities of color, forest school leaders say.

Kenny said programs must be aggressive about serving all kinds of families. And it’s not just tuition help that’s needed, she said. Because children are outside in all kinds of weather, families may need help ensuring their children have access to high-quality clothing and gear.

“It’s incumbent on these schools to offer some kind of assistance because right now the government’s not doing it, nobody’s doing it,” she said.

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.