By Dora Jacildo
In the field of early childhood education there are many assessment tools that demonstrate what a high-quality environment for children 0-5 years old looks like. Rating scales and checklists give program administrators and teachers a very clear sense of how the environment should be set up and what materials should be included for each age grouping. The primary focus is on providing a safe, supportive and engaging experience for the children, families, and teachers at the facility.
Zero to Three (January 2009) published a list of the characteristics of high-quality environments, which included:
At Children Today, we realize that for children experiencing homelessness, the environment plays a significant role in their ability to develop roots. This, for many children, becomes the most predictable and consistent environment in what may be a very chaotic life. The teachers specifically design environments that reflect the children’s culture and community in order to emphasize the importance of being culturally relevant and surround the children with things that are familiar to them. We make sure that the children’s primary language is spoken to them throughout the day and that they see images of people like them in our books, posters, and toys. Our environments serve to help children feel less isolated by reminding them that there are others like them and that their feelings about their experiences are worth exploring in the classroom and in the curriculum.
There is great emphasis placed in creating private spaces for children in the classrooms. We recognize that being homeless is a very public experience and living in a shelter means sharing communal spaces all the time. Every child needs time to be alone, to have privacy, and to succeed at an activity without being interrupted or having to negotiate with other children.
We also know that given the traumatic nature of homelessness, many children have difficulty self-regulating and need an environment that is soothing and secure. With this in mind, we pay close attention to the children’s senses. This means that the colors we chose to decorate the classroom, the lighting we chose to use to enhance the space, the odors that we use to clean or deodorize a space and the sounds we expose the children to are intentional and designed to help children feel safe and relaxed.
Many years ago we enrolled a little boy into our preschool program. He had recently been placed in his father’s custody after his mother had gone to prison on a drug related charge. The little boy was getting to know his father, adjusting to living in a shelter, and attending day care for the first time in his life all at the same time. After a couple of months enrolled in the program, the family secured housing. One day, the little boy walked into his classroom and kicked off his shoes…they flew into the air! Dad smiled and told the teachers that he knew his child felt at home with us because he did the same thing at their new house.
By Elia Rocha
In honor of our late co-founder Jennifer Fitzgerald's birthday, long-time supporters Dennis & Leslie Smith have purchased shoes to give as gifts to the little ones at our Play Houses. Dennis came up with the name, Hearts & Soles, the first time he did this on Jennifer's birthday, just ten days after she passed away. That was in 2005, and they've been doing it ever since. Christine Lorenzetti, Jennifer's sister and Children Today board member extraordinaire, says they chose shoes to honor Jennifer with because she loved them so much.
About a week ago, Dennis & Leslie Smith, Chris Lorenzetti, and Play House North Program Director Gina Guffy, went shopping!
They purchased shoes for every child at the Play House North. Teachers then helped the kids try on the shoes that were hand-picked just for them.
Everyone gets very excited in March when Hearts & Soles comes around; the teachers, the parents, and the kids, of course! Here they are modeling their new kicks.
Thanks so much Dennis & Leslie Smith for your kindness and generosity!
By Elia Rocha & Samantha V.
Parents sometimes give us things; small tokens of their esteem, or little gifts to say thank you. We've gotten sweet treats, homemade cards, and other unique signifiers that point to the reciprocal relationships parents have with teachers. Beyond the thing itself, though, is the thought that counts. That's because these gifts are expressions of the hard-earned trust that parents have given us to care for what's most precious to them during what is often the hardest time in their lives.
One of the most memorable gifts we've received came from Samantha, a young mother of two. She and her husband were laid off, one right after the other, and they suddenly found themselves without a home and without any income. Wary, Samantha brought her two little ones to the Play House North while she and her husband went about rebuilding their lives. They eventually both found work and housing, and exited the program soon after.
Here is what she wrote for us when they left.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
The preschoolers at the Play House West engage in many practical life skills, like washing dishes. This sensory activity also introduces children to the science of making bubbles, encourages discussions about health and safety, provides opportunities for practicing fine motor skills, and allows them to engage in conversations.
This type of small group activity provides children with the opportunity to work together on a common task. It teaches responsibility and team work.
These preschoolers work together to clean and maintain the toys in their classroom, which demonstrates a sense of pride in contributing to a pleasant environment.
Because this is a small group activity, some children will play in a different area of the classroom until a spot opens up. This teaches the children the value of taking turns and the importance of being patient. Throughout the activity, children negotiate the space and materials in order to work comfortably and cooperatively. Teachers ensure that every child who wants to participate is given the opportunity.
Most importantly, the children really enjoy cleaning up!
By Elia Rocha
Objectively, it’s not enough. Not enough resources to help every child we come across. Not enough influence to help every struggling family stay together. Not enough foresight to always do the exact right thing at the exact right time to prevent something bad from happening.
Sometimes we are part of something momentous and we are privileged to see the fruits of our labor. A young mother who we hadn’t heard from in years called us out of the blue. She had just signed mortgage papers on her first home and she said she felt compelled to tell us that we had made the difference for her. Back when her child was enrolled in The Play House West and they were living in a shelter, she had just managed to find an apartment and to scrape together the first month’s rent and security deposit when her purse was stolen. In a panic, she came to us and we found a way to get the money she needed. That, she said, was the turning point for her and her family.
Dramatic events such as these, while wonderful and affirming, are in sharp contrast to the every day, the slow and steady (or not so steady) unromantic work we do. We provide a safety net for children and families. We are a grounding force, offering resources, consistency, and stability. For most families, we get to see children grow, and parents take incremental steps to improve their lives. For others though, for all our continuous efforts, we are witnesses to patterns of dysfunction that seem to constantly loop families back to places of deep insecurity.
That might inspire an image of Sisyphus, that tragic Greek figure ever straining to roll that rock up the mountain, ever faltering, futility itself. But I don’t think he’s meant to take that rock to the summit. He’s preparing the ground, using the forces of gravity and time to smooth the path ahead for others to make their way. It is slow, painstaking, important work.
The fact is that once they leave us, we don’t often get to see where families go. We don’t know, we can’t know, the full impact we’ve had. And that’s true for everyone. We are all threads making up the tapestries of other people’s lives. Even though we can’t see the full picture, the end result, we must acknowledge that each of us plays an important role and do right by that knowledge.
We can’t do everything. We must do something. Let's do something good.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.