Chloe Learey: Early childhood education and child care are not synonymous

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The COVID 19 pandemic has magnified many issues that were already a challenge in our everyday lives and child care is no exception. Children of all ages and their families are struggling to deal with a world full of uncertainty related to in-person education and care, making it difficult to juggle the demands of work and home.

The move to hybrid or remote learning for grades K through 12 has thrown the issue of care vs. education into the forefront. I hear families ask, "How can I go to work if my kid can't go to school?" and teachers say "We aren't babysitters, this is education, not care!" The structure of our economic system makes it impossible to make this distinction fully, and it can be helpful to understand how education and care are important to consider together across the age continuum as we strive to create high-quality learning environments.

Early childhood education and child care are not synonymous although we use the words interchangeably. They are connected, however. We understand there is a need for working parents to find care for their children who are not old enough to go to elementary school, and thus the search for "day care" and "child care" begins. The baseline is safety and anything beyond that is considered a bonus. What we have come to learn is that care is education in these early years, whether we are intentional about it or not. The brain is 80 percent developed by age 3, and 90 percent by age 5 before children even get to kindergarten. The lessons learned during this time — understanding emotions and learning to regulate, how to communicate with others and build relationships, how to participate in groups — provide the foundation for what we consider more "academic education."

If children do not have the opportunity to develop these social-emotional skills they will not be as able to build their literacy, math, science, and critical thinking skills as they continue their "book learning." A lot of effort goes into creating excellent learning environments for young children. These efforts recognize that it requires much more than being fed and kept safe. In addition, to care and nurturing, it involves understanding child development, what young children are learning, and how they are learning it. This means intentional teaching and not just planning activities to keep children busy all day. This is why the curriculum includes aspects such as developing and following routines, creating learning centers like a dramatic play area and a sensory table, and having circle time.

Similarly, it is important to recognize that high-quality learning environments in the compulsory school setting also include elements of care and nurturing. This is true even if our economic system did not depend on some form of care for school-age children so that parents can work outside of the home. Students are whole people whose multi-faceted lives impact how they can show up as learners. The work that schools do to help address this, from providing meals to understanding there may not be a quiet place at home for them to do schoolwork, is a part of education because it helps students access learning. Schools and educators cannot fix all the problems, but we do provide a consistent, reliable resource that is one of the best spaces we have to support our children across contexts.

What does quality look like in early education? It is not a replica of elementary school for the birth-to-5 group. And having toddlers or preschoolers start to do rote memorization of letters and numbers does not lead to optimal development. The work of a child is play, and teachers understanding that play and providing an early education paradigm and framework to it is what makes the difference between child care and early education. It is not a matter of simply changing the language and calling everything "early education." Rather, it is a matter of clarifying what we mean and using the right language so that people understand the significance of high-quality early learning environments.

The state of Vermont has been aware and supportive of the importance of child care during this pandemic, although some of the efforts do not hit the target. For example, the idea of the "regional child care hubs" being available to provide an alternative to children who are not attending school full time has created confusion. On the one hand, it cannot be "babysitting" or camp; on the other hand, the qualifications for people to work there seems to be "do you need a job? Want to hang out with kids? Here's a signing bonus!" This is a direct contradiction and undermines our ability to help people understand the importance of making sure programs are high-quality. It is unclear what the demand is for these hubs or how long they will be needed since they were set up in direct response to hybrid school models. It is also unclear how they will be sustainable if needed. Child care was already a thin margin business. It is even more so given the current requirements for screening and cleaning. And full enrollment is not guaranteed since many families are not comfortable with sending their children to multiple locations or cannot afford the care.

The future of child care and early education is very uncertain, with headlines like "COVID-19 Has Nearly Destroyed the Child Care Industry and It Might Be Too Late to Save It" (TIME Magazine, September 8, 2020, https://time.com/5886491/covid-childcare-daycare/). Early childhood services are one of the most important investments we can make in the future of our children and in the future of our community. Children with a strong foundation are better prepared for school, more productive workers, and healthier adults. If we do not make a public investment in care for our youngest citizens, we will face negative education and economic impacts for years to come. We will all benefit if we collectively support the care and education of young children.

Chloe Learey is the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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