Champions for Children: Advocacy for Preschool, Universal PreK, and Childhood, and Protecting Playful Learning

A young child waters plants

Universal PreK in Colorado

In the Fall of 2023, a new state law goes into effect that provides funding for up 15 hours per week (now expanded from the original 10 hours/week) for all 4-year-olds in Colorado to be eligible for Universal PreK (UPK), subject to provider capacity and participation. The law is designed for a “mixed-delivery system” with the intention of empowering parents to choose the best setting for their child between licensed care options based out of schools, centers, or home-based daycare. 

Treehouse Learning, along with our community of Boulder County independent or private early childhood education centers, and working in conjunction with our local Early Childhood Council, are all rapidly assessing the information related to UPK as it emerges, actively collaborating on the implementation of UPK with state partners on behalf of Colorado children, families, and small businesses/independent preschool providers.

The logistical and practical considerations for the implementation of UPK related to parent choice, continuity of services, access, funding, curriculum, and quality standards are significant! As a provider of quality center-based early education, we have a clear interest in advocating for eligible families to receive the financial benefit of UPK while honoring parental choice in selecting a high-quality program that also meets the needs of working families and honoring the integrity of quality standards rooted in child development. 

A young child waters plants
The first 5 years of life correspond to the period of the most rapid brain development, which literally shape our brains for the rest of our lives.

No one knows quite yet what UPK will mean for independently owned and operated centers, but there are real concerns over the need to ensure the rollout of UPK does not inadvertently put smaller centers out of business, reduce infant/toddler enrollment spots across the state, exacerbate additional workforce shortages and perpetuate persisting wage inequalities.

Additionally, with the school districts emerging as primary providers of UPK, a looming question remains: will the expansion of the public school system to encompass preschool children actually improve and fix the system, or will preschool simply become the new-new first grade?

The good news is that there is power in the collective voice, and agencies are fairly responsive to many concerns and questions. We’re also aware that our ability to advocate and be heard is itself a reflection of privilege. Major equity gaps persist around access to quality early childhood programs, though this is a huge and positive step forward for all Colorado children.

Early Childhood Care as Critical Infrastructure

Image of empty wooden desks sit in a classroom | Treehouse Learning Early Childhood Education Daycare Boulder Louisville Lafayette East Boulder County
Children aren’t simply miniature adults, though they are newer human beings. Do we risk making preschool the new-new first grade?

The pandemic really laid bare that the system of early childhood care and education is pretty broken. Market forces of supply and demand don’t readily address the critical infrastructure that early childhood education centers provide that in turn supports the larger economy through workforce participation. Parents with children need childcare in order to work.

While Universal Preschool is laudable in its intent, 10 hours a week of free preschool doesn’t meet the needs of most working parents in order to work a full workday!  Even families with resources for private care options feel the squeeze. Employers rely on working parents having access to affordable and accessible childcare in order to work, yet do not fund it, and the burden falls on families.

Protecting Children and Childhood

It is for these reasons that we are also called to be advocates and champions for children and on behalf of early childhood education and families. Research on the necessity of playful learning experiences is abundant and clear.

We seek to influence the discussion around early education directly because we don’t believe that children’s best interests are served when politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, and tech companies shape the policies that impact young children. Our curriculum is grounded in the foundations of child development and rooted in research on optimal brain development, interpersonal neurobiology, and attachment science

As early childhood professionals and experts, we protect childhood by building understanding and awareness of the value of this fundamental time of development, such as by ensuring that inappropriate developmental expectations in the form of universal standards, especially for academics, aren’t simply retrofitted downwards to younger children.

Children are simply newer humans, but they aren’t adults, and a 4-year-old does not simply have ⅓ of the maturity, cognitive development, or intellectual capacity of a 12-year-old. Nature designed children to learn via play-based experiences and within the context of safe and securely attached relationships.

In fact, it is the playful learning experiences that prepare the brain for all the academic learning that follows. It is for this reason that we incorporate so much music, movement, arts, play, nature, and culture into our curriculum in order to support the development and integration of the whole brain that is necessary for true learning.

Advancing Educational Equity in Daycare and Early Childhood Education

Just as a cup of coffee at Starbucks in New York is expected to taste the same as a cup of coffee in Seattle, Universal PreK ignites concerns for the thus-far undefined expectations of consistency, quality, and state-approved curriculum options. The intention is clearly to increase educational equity and level the playing field by increasing access to quality experiences for all children. This is laudable and critically important.

However, also at play is a fundamental question around the educational independence of early childhood professionals to be able to offer responsive and developmentally appropriate experiences that lead to learning- will the best interests of children be determined by experts in early childhood or politicians, tech companies, and corporations?

Children Thrive When Adults are Thriving

Additionally, we are firm in the belief that children thrive when the adults around them are thriving. We advocate on behalf of families that childcare truly is critical infrastructure that provides a public good and service to all, and the burden of this should not fall solely on families. We seek to shift the narrative and hold employers, corporations, and decision-makers accountable for supporting a critical infrastructure that provides a clear economic benefit by ensuring that working parents can actually work. 

We also advocate on behalf of our staff of trained, dedicated, and professional educators to ensure that all childhood professionals are appropriately compensated with a liveable wage in a way that reflects their true value. This goes beyond simply paying higher wages and benefits, and includes other significant factors such as affordable housing and a trauma-informed approach to recognizing, repairing, and healing from community-wide collective trauma as well as systemic injustices and inequalities.

Building the World We Want to See

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At Treehouse Learning, we recognize that we have a platform and privilege that equips us with a voice through which we have some degree of power to be heard. Treehouse Learning, which stands on the unceded Ancestral homelands of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute People, has benefitted directly and indirectly from systems, laws, and institutions that were often unjust, inequitable, and violent.

While no one alive today could be held responsible for historical injustices, every one of us has the choice and opportunity to engage with the world in ways that bring healing and growth. At Treehouse Learning, we believe that the collective privileges we hold give us both the opportunity and responsibility to use our collective voice to help shape the kind of world we’d all like our descendants to inherit. 

As Early Childhood Professionals, we are honored to have the opportunity to directly impact the course of the world as it unfolds from this point forward through our engagement with children. It is our gift to help shape the kind of creative and compassionate world we can imagine and hope for.

We do this by supporting whole-person development and integration through intentional, responsive, and respectful experiences. We do this by intentionally and actively creating community and building belonging, where we engage with the world from a place of mind-body integration. When our brains, bodies, and hearts are all integrated, we are able to shift our perspective into a place of seeing one another, rather than seeing an other

We exist to help humans thrive and co-create the world we want to see. We believe this happens through interconnected relationships, where we see ourselves as a holistic and integrated part of the “bigger picture.” Like an ecosystem, we thrive collectively when all of the parts are thriving.

The sun, the worm, the soil, the plants and trees, the herbivores and the carnivores, and the water systems all serve different roles and functions- they are all not equal- but a healthy system relies on each distinct part optimally functioning. We believe we play a critical role in the world by building strong communities, families, parents, and children. We do this intentionally, responsively, and respectfully.

In the words of the great orator Fredrick Douglass, “It is better to build strong children than repair broken men.” 

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