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.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
Children, even young children, understand fairness. At two years old they are developing a sense of autonomy, independence and freedom. The words, “No!” and “Mine!” have become their best friends.
I watched a little boy walk around the classroom picking up items, content with just having them in his possession. He had a doll tucked under his arm, a baby bottle in one hand and a block (which he used as a phone) in another. He knelt down to pick up a bottle of bubbles, but in the process, his baby slipped from beneath his arm and fell to the ground. Another child was walking by, saw the baby on the ground, and picked it up. The little boy screamed and said, “No! No! No!... Mine!” as he lay on the ground in utter dismay. The child, startled by the outburst, handed the baby back to the little boy, who then quietly went about his business.
What this boy was doing was using his voice and asserting his rights, as he saw them. As is typical for young children who are in nurturing and supportive environments, he has learned that his voice and actions give him influence in the world. What happens to many people as they grow, however, is that they lose that sense of influence. Whether it’s because they live in poverty and have scarce resources, or they don’t have a safe place to live, or they've experienced abuse or neglect…any number of factors can chip away at them until they are thoroughly disenfranchised. They learn that society is not always just.
Social justice comes from a very specific place. It is born in the hearts and minds of individuals who want to make a difference in society. It’s about understanding the human condition and finding ways to address the needs of those people and families you encounter along the way. It’s about providing a little peace, harmony and support to mothers, fathers and children that deal with so much each and every day. It’s about letting people know that you see them for who they are and what they are trying to do with their lives and for their families. This desire to make a difference is what brought me to Children Today. What keeps me here are the children that greet me each morning with hugs and smiles.
What I have learned about social justice is that what the compassionate side of our society is trying to accomplish is not simply giving things away, but providing a means by which people are allowed to find their own way. That is what we do at Children Today. Our parents allow us to care for their children so that they can find a way to be self-reliant, responsible, and productive members of their community. They want to be seen. They want to be understood. But most importantly, they want to be valued for who they are and what they are trying to accomplish in their life. For many, that is being able to take care of their family, and isn’t that what most of us are trying to accomplish?
By Dora Jacildo
Growing up, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by many people who helped me develop a sense of what social justice means. I had teachers who taught me the value of taking turns to ensure that everyone had a chance to participate meaningfully, a mother that was concerned with making sure that my sisters and I learned about fairness, classmates who advocated on my behalf when I didn't know how to speak English and was too emotionally overwhelmed to stand up for myself, and a community that believed that living in harmony benefitted us all.
The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice states that "Social justice embodies the vision of a society that is equitable and in which all members are physically and psychologically safe. Social justice also demands that all people have a right to basic human dignity and to have their basic economic needs met."
Throughout my life, I have had the privilege of working alongside people who have truly embraced the principles of social justice and made it their mission to work towards the development of stable, safe, and just societies. Children Today's founders, board members, staff and supporters have all contributed to making it a social justice agency with a successful track record of addressing poverty, violence, trauma, oppression, racism, and other issues that have marginalized families.
I am so proud of the work that we do in responding to families' immediate needs, advocating for long term systems changes, and teaching the young children we serve about social justice by being a living example. Children understand fairness, they understand empathy, they know about dignity and respect. The children we serve are a lot like the child I used to be and, perhaps, because of the experience they are having in our programs today, they may choose to be the ones to continue the pursuit of social justice and working towards ensuring that all of our members achieve self-actualization and self-determination.
Editor's note: The United Nations has declared February 20th as World Day of Social Justice. To learn more, visit their website.
By Elia Rocha
I think we can all agree that no child should go hungry and that every child is entitled to healthy, nutritious food. The prevalence of food insecurity in the United States, especially amongst children, is scandalously high. It is also well-worn territory, so I won’t go into it here – although if you do want to learn more about the consequences of child hunger and food insecurity, I encourage you to visit No Kid Hungry.
What I do want to share is what food insecurity looks like from our vantage point, here at The Play House programs.
Like most child development facilities serving low-income households, we offer fully subsidized meals and snacks. We follow USDA guidelines to ensure that we are providing plentiful, balanced, and nutritious foods. And yet, what we sometimes see when we serve meals is anxious monitoring of how much is there, who’s getting what, and will there be enough for me?
Obviously, every child has a unique history and disposition, and reacts to challenges in their own way. A while back, the preschool classroom at the Play House North had a particular mix of histories, dispositions, and reactions which bounced off each other to create real turmoil at meal times. We had some children who seemingly could not be sated, one child who hid food, and another who was so anxious that he wouldn't get enough to eat that he needed to lie down before meals to try to calm himself. For teachers, the children’s reactions triggered their own anxieties. After all, what is more primal for a caregiver than feeding their charges, and what can feel worse than not satisfying a child’s hunger?
Naturally, the whole classroom felt the tension and reacted in kind. Now, we’d had occasional acute worries around food before, but never in this concentration and to this degree. It was a difficult situation, one that prompted a fundamental change in how we dealt with meals.
What we did was limit food. I don’t mean to imply that we had an inexhaustible supply before. No, we had portion recommendations for each meal, but we always made more than was strictly needed for parents who wanted to share meals with their kids, or for families who wanted to take leftovers with them at the end of the day. And, since we served our meals family style, the idea was that kids would help themselves from communal bowls. We decided to set up a structure; two servings per child of the main menu item. Only that amount of food was presented at the table and the rest was stored elsewhere.
It may seem counter-intuitive, even ungenerous to restrict food in this way. The key is to understand that by presenting an over abundance of food we weren't satisfying children’s hunger, but instead were feeding into their anxieties. Setting up the two-serving structure and keeping the rest of the food out of sight relieved children of the burden of responsibility over how much they were going to get, and from feeling the need to compete. The structure also introduced much more predictability around meal times. Teachers could reassure children that the same thing would happen every day; each child could have two servings if they wished, each child would have access to the same quantity of food, and there would always be enough for everyone. For children with a history of trauma, establishing a predictable environment is critical to their sense of safety and security. Meal times are clearly no exception, so this new structure made a big difference.
Everyone has a personal relationship to food, which starts literally from day one. Those who have experienced food insecurity and privation know that even when they have enough to eat, fears about food can still feel like an existential threat. It is not surprising then, that these same fears cause some of our little ones to react the way they do. Even when there is enough, when it is plainly there before them, they’re still swinging.
By Elia Rocha
Some years back, two new scooters were stolen from the shed in the preschool yard at the Play House West. Teachers shared the bad news with the kids and each child got the chance to talk about how the theft made them feel. Teachers wrote down their thoughts and stapled them onto the shed.
Talking about what happened and writing down their feelings gave the preschoolers an opportunity to take some power back from the theft. Children said things like, “You made everybody sad at my school," and "Please, please get out of our yard. Stay in your yard and get your own stuff."
While it is certainly a caregiver's job to protect children, when something bad does happen, it is just as important to acknowledge it and provide kids with a safe space to explore and process their feelings. For our children, who have had more than their fair share of bad things happen, it is all the more important to help them build the resiliency (the ability to bounce back) that they, and all kids, need.
When I saw the preschoolers' words stapled onto the shed, I remember thinking how powerful a message they were. They said, "We're here, this happened to us, we're a community, and we have a voice."
The preschoolers at Play House North really love to cook. In the past they've made vegetable soup, oatmeal raisin bars, homemade peanut butter, and watermelon agua fresca. Cooking, and food preparation activities in general, are wonderful ways to engage children across many areas of development.
Self & Social Development:
By working on a project together, children can practice impulse control, how to take turns, and how to negotiate space and materials.
Language & Literacy Development
By using recipes, children are learning to follow increasingly complex instructions. Recipe and process discussions also promote new words and terminology.
Recipe analysis helps them learn cause and effect and helps them engage in critical thinking.
Using the right amount of each ingredient helps them practice measuring skills.
Chopping, pouring, and stirring helps them with their fine motor skills.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.