by Emily Freehling
Early childhood — birth to age 5 — is a critical time in a child’s development. The quality of a child’s experiences in care and early learning programs during this time lays the foundation for a their future success in school and in life.
Virginia Quality provides resources to help Virginia’s child care and early learning programs continuously improve. Child care centers, preschools and home-based care providers voluntarily choose to work with us for support and professional development in the areas of staff education and qualifications, curriculum and assessment, and classroom environment and interactions.
Virginia Quality builds long-term relationships with participating teachers and directors , says Janine Sewell, Virginia Quality Regional Coordinator. All of this support comes at no cost to the school or center. Virginia Quality is supported by the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, VECF and the Virginia Department of Social Services through a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a free resource that can help ensure all children are ready for school at age 5. Virginia Quality in the Fredericksburg region is part of Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area, a nonprofit that seeks to bring together community resources to ensure that all children are ready for school, and ready for life.
Q: Child care centers and preschools must all be licensed or accept subsidy assistance by the state to participate with Virginia Quality. What is the difference between the standards to be licensed and the work Virginia Quality does?
Courtney Harris, Virginia Quality Local Coordinator, explains that licensing ensures all programs meet the requirements for health and safety, Virginia Quality Level 1. Licensing is the starting point for any entity that seeks to participate in Virginia Quality, because all centers and schools must be in good standing with state and local regulations to start working with the program. But licensing doesn’t get into the best practices that support a child’s development from infancy through age 5. Virginia Quality focuses on best practices and developmentally appropriate methods.
Q: What does “best practices” mean on a practical level?
Jenna Martin, Program Specialist, explains that for staff, it’s about professional development and encouraging teachers to get the training or education they need to provide the best curriculum, care and classroom environment. While the bare minimum is providing the right staff-to-child ratio, changing diapers a certain number of times per day, etc., the standards Virginia Quality promotes go deeper into the environment and interactions within the center, and that all starts with the training and support given to the staff.
It takes a lot of work for preschools and child care centers to keep up with basic administrative duties and licensing requirements. They often don’t have as much time as they would like to invest in their staff, even if they see the benefit. Virginia Quality is a free resource for those centers and schools who want to take the next step to help children learn and grow.
“We work with the teacher, observe the classroom and provide support and feedback,” Harris adds. “Our technical assistance specialists get on the floor with the children and build relationships with the teachers. For a child care or preschool director who wants to be innovative and see their children excel, working with us is a no-brainer.”
Q: How can we find out which child care providers and preschools in the Fredericksburg region participate with Virginia Quality?
Go to virginiaquality.com and click “parents” to search by name or location for child care providers, preschools and licensed family day homes that participate. Fredericksburg is located in the North Central region, so searching within that region provides a comprehensive listing of who is participating in this area.
Q: What do the five levels in your program mean?
They are not a traditional rating system, as so many of us have become accustomed to seeing in the online world with “stars” and other numerical indicators. The Virginia Quality levels lay out a map for continued improvement. Any school or center that participates with us has made a commitment to long-term improvement and training to help staff provide developmentally appropriate learning experiences for the children in their care. Participating centers should be able to talk to parents about what they are currently doing to try to achieve the next level. It’s not just checking a box and putting up a certificate. It’s actually engaging with professionals to help them on a daily basis, not just preparing for an annual visit.
Q: What are some characteristics parents should look for in a quality early childhood program?
Two words: Creative play.
A lot of parents who want to make sure their children can keep up once they hit school look for a very structured academic experience in preschool — things like paper-and-pencil worksheets. But research continues to show that you don’t accomplish anything by pushing this kind of work on little brains. Young children do best with play-based learning environments.
Martin references a saying: “Play is the work of the young child.” It’s absolutely right but could benefit from some explaining. When you hear the word “play,” it doesn’t mean a free-for-all. It doesn’t mean the children are running wildly around the classroom. It is carefully planned in the same way any lesson would be.
Play is important for development, for education, for social skills and emotional skills. When children are playing, they are playing with others. That teaches them about relationships. Play means they get to ask, “I wonder if?” and then try something for themselves. You should see teachers playing with the children, talking with them, asking them questions. What are you doing? How are you doing it? What are you trying to achieve?
Q: How does play-based learning help children get ready for school?
Trudie Knapp, Virginia Quality Regional Rater, shares that several years ago, Virginia Quality gave kindergarten and preschool teachers the opportunity to spend half a day in each other’s classrooms. “We were excited to learn that what was most important to the kindergarten teachers were not academic skills like being able to write your name, or being able to count to 10,” she says. “Teachers wanted the children to be able to put their own coats on, to be able to open their milk cartons. They wanted them to be able to put their toys away when they were finished playing. They wanted them to be able to stand in line and to be autonomous and demonstrate leadership. All of these skills are learned through constructive play.”
In terms of imagination and play, elementary school teachers tell us they are now seeing children who don’t know how to use their imaginations, possibly stemming from too much screen time and a lack of open-ended learning materials and experiences. Play is about the momentum from within. That is what propels children through future learning. If children are not spending the majority of their time in play, they are not getting that crucial skill.
Q: What can parents do to help early childhood care in our area continue to improve?
Interact with the directors and teachers at your child’s preschool or child care provider. Ask them if they participate with Virginia Quality, or what they are doing to develop their staff and educational experience.
Look around the classroom. Children should be doing their own work — with all its imperfections — not bringing home picture-perfect crafts that were mostly done by the teacher. They should spend most of their time in structured play, not on screens or at desks. Teachers should play with them.
In an infant room, look for an environment where babies can move freely and have access to mirrors and safe materials to touch and feel. They shouldn’t be spending most of their time in “containers” like bouncy seats or ExerSaucers.
Being engaged and asking questions makes a huge difference.