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Published May 01, 2020
When Hannah Robinson spotted her 3-year-old daughter, Darci, looking through a rolled-up piece of paper like a spyglass, she snapped a cellphone photo and sent it to University of Wyoming student Sarina Ruby.
Ruby, of Rozet, is taking the class “Observing Young Children” in the UW College of Education. She would normally be in the toddler room at the Early Childhood and Education Center in Laramie, pencil and notebook in hand; Robinson, also in Laramie, would be running Darci and her older sister to preschool and kindergarten.
Robinson and Ruby have met up via FaceTime since Ruby’s class moved online in March in response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
“Parents observe for us,” Ruby says. “The difference is we’re getting to see early childhood learning not specifically through the child, but through the family.”
UW Associate Lecturer Nikki Baldwin explains, “From birth to age 5 is such a unique phase of human development -- assessment requires a distinctive set of skills that is different from assessment of older children.”
Baldwin’s students observe children’s daily routines and play, then use what they learn to plan curriculum.
The first week, Robinson sent pictures of her daughter playing with Play-Doh, digging for rocks and playing with puppies. When Ruby called the second week, Robinson said, “Darci, your friend is here to talk with you.”
Darci says her favorite thing to do at home is play with Hatchimals.
“Those are little eggs you put in water,” Ruby says. “She’s really smart and talks well for a 3-year-old.”
“Sarina is reteaching what she’s learning in class,” Robinson says. “This week, it’s book appreciation. She tells me what to watch for and gives examples. She says, ‘Does Darci associate the sounds with the letters? Can she retell the story?’”
Robinson says working with Ruby has given her new perspective.
“As a mom, I’ll never take that class. Now, I’ve come to appreciate all the little things my girls do as part of their development,” Robinson says. “I’m learning and growing with Darci.”
Community Linkages Lead to Opportunities
“What science tells us is children need supportive relationships with responsive adults to be resilient,” says Becca Steinhoff, executive director of the Casper-based Ellbogen Foundation, home of the Wyoming Kids First initiative.
When Gov. Mark Gordon ordered the closure of child care facilities in March, parents began asking providers for resources to help them teach at home.
“Early childhood programs have never been asked to do this,” Baldwin says. “It’s a challenge. Many of the providers also are working from home, caring for their own children.”
The Wyoming Early Childhood Outreach Network was poised to address the need. WYECON, as it is known, was established last year in the UW College of Education with the support of the UW Trustees Education Initiative. The program provides early childhood educators with a source for vetted, research-based learning. As important, it brought previously isolated providers together in elevating their field.
While laying the groundwork for WYECON, Steinhoff and Baldwin learned other entities were exploring possibilities for partnership. Joining forces in 2019, seven state agencies, UW organizations and Wyoming nonprofits formed the Wyoming Early Childhood Professional Learning Collaborative. By July, the collaborative had placed nine early childhood professional learning facilitators in seven regions covering the state.
After the coronavirus closures, the collaborative reached out to ask early childhood educators what they most needed. Within a day, it received 92 responses, Baldwin says. More followed. A key gap the collaborative found was support for parents.
“Parents are feeling enormous stress,” Baldwin says. “We want them to know they are not alone, and they have everything they need for learning with their children at home.”
According to Steinhoff -- herself the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Lydia -- the importance for WYECON is to stay true to the science of how children grow, learn and develop.
“That means communicating that families don’t need to create new materials but to harness the power of the ordinary,” she says. “We get caught up thinking we need to create a learning invitation. Learning can happen while we’re doing the laundry.”
That was the message when 120 parents and educators joined Baldwin on a recent Zoom session offered by UW Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), a partner in the early childhood collaborative.
“That turnout was unheard of,” Baldwin says.
Regional facilitators will share more ideas and practical solutions in upcoming sessions. Baldwin also expedited development of the Wyoming Early Childhood Professional Learning Collaborative website, featuring scores of science-backed learning activities for parents and educators.
In Wyoming, there are approximately 37,900 babies and toddlers under age 5 -- and 650 licensed early childhood care and education providers. The state’s rural nature -- low population and remote communities -- makes access to quality care and education more challenging.
Those needs led the UW trustees in November 2019 to approve a notice of intent to establish a UW early childhood education degree. Students will be able to access the program via distance as well as on campus, and practicum experiences will be available throughout the state.
Under a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council has been working since January to conduct a statewide birth-age 5 needs assessment. With broad involvement, the council will develop a B-5 strategic plan that takes in a wide view of what families want and need -- such as different learning approaches, child care sites closer to work, and operating hours that align with work schedules such as those of nurses and firefighters.
WYECON is taking the lead on sharing best practices through the Early Childhood Professional Learning Collaborative website. The goal is to elevate the early childhood workforce and improve overall program quality, Steinhoff says.
She acknowledges the task ahead looks different from how it did a couple of months ago. Weaknesses are more apparent. So, too, have early childhood care and education gained awareness for being critical business infrastructure, essential for families and communities.
“We knew that but, now, the lens has changed entirely,” she says.
Steinhoff says she appreciates the rich learning environment her daughter enjoyed at an early childhood center in Casper. After weeks of working from home, she readily admits, “We consider the educators there an extension of our family. We can’t wait to walk back through the front door.”
Where to learn more:
-- Wyoming Early Childhood Professional Learning Collaborative -- www.wyecplc.org.
-- Facebook -- www.facebook.com/wyecplc.
-- Instagram -- www.instagram.com/wyecplc.
-- UW Trustees Education Initiative and WYECON -- www.uwyo.edu/tei.
-- UW Project ECHO -- www.uwyo.edu/wind/echo/early-childhood.
-- Ellbogen Foundation Kids First Initiative -- www.ellbogenfoundation.org.