Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.

career prep

A growing Jeffco program trains future early childhood workers while they’re still in high school

Julian Salazar, 18, plays with preschool children at an internship that's part of his high school's early childhood pathway program.

Julian Salazar pushed preschoolers on swings, weaving deftly between them as the children careened back and forth. Earlier in the afternoon, the 18-year-old had worked mazes, played a number-themed card game, and snacked on Goldfish crackers with the 3- and 4-year-olds.

It was all part of Salazar’s weekly internship in a preschool classroom a couple miles away from his high school, Jefferson Junior/Senior High in the Denver suburb of Edgewater.

The internship, which ended in early May, is one component of a new early childhood career pathway offered at the high school. The year-long program also includes two early childhood classes and leads to an entry-level certificate from Red Rocks Community College that qualifies students to be assistant preschool or child care teachers.

Salazar — and students in similar concurrent enrollment programs around Colorado — represents one segment of the child care field’s next generation. With their professional lives just beginning, the students are laying the foundation to earn further credentials and become the lead preschool teachers and directors of the future. It’s a vision straight out of the state’s three-year plan to build a strong early childhood workforce. But in a field known for low pay and high turnover, keeping these students in the pipeline is no small task.

Julian Salazar, 18, helps a preschooler with his jacket during his internship.

Still, organizers of the Jeffco school district’s early childhood pathway are optimistic. Enrollment in the program at Jefferson is set to more than double from 19 this year to 43 next year, and plans are in the works to expand to two other district high schools — McLain Community and Arvada West — by 2020.

The district offered similar early childhood training programs at certain district high schools in the past, but they fizzled out. One had targeted teen moms enrolled at McLain, for example, but many of the students weren’t ready for college-level work, said Janiece Kneppe Walter, who leads the early childhood education program at Red Rocks and helped the district set up the pathway program.

A few years ago, Kneppe Walter and her colleagues won a grant to revamp the two introductory early childhood classes. Then in the fall of 2016, teacher Nicole Kamman launched the pathway program at Jefferson with eight students. At first, it was just a sequence of two college courses modified for a high school audience. This year, leaders decided to add the 22-hour internship to give students more hands-on practice.

While Jefferson is one of the lower performing high schools in the district, it has posted improved graduation rates and test scores in recent years. The vast majority of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

Kamman sees the early childhood program as a way to give these students valuable experience in a field where qualified workers are in high demand.

“Any opportunity to get them career-ready … I knew I had capacity to promote that,” she said.

At the same time, local preschoolers in Edgewater and nearby areas get the chance to see teenage role models from their own communities, many of whom speak Spanish, as they do.

On a spring day in Kamman’s classroom, her high school students discussed nine child temperament traits and then acted them out as classmates tried to guess the characteristic.

When it was Salazar’s turn, he mimed sweeping the floor, not giving up even after repeatedly fumbling with the broom and dustpan.

“Persistence,” a classmate guessed correctly.

Of the eight Jefferson students who completed the early childhood pathway program last year, four landed jobs at local preschools or child care centers, Kamman said, and a fifth enrolled at Red Rocks seeking a degree in early childhood education.

But for some students, perhaps even a majority, the pathway program is a stepping-stone to something else.

“I don’t think they necessarily see early childhood as their endpoint,” Kamman said.

One of her students hopes to become a pediatrician, so the early childhood classes are a useful stop in a longer journey.

Salazar, a self-assured teen who was as comfortable helping kids with stubborn jacket zippers as playing chase on the playground, described his internship in the preschool classroom at Jefferson County Open School as “amazing.” Asked if he planned to pursue early childhood education, he said he could see working as a teaching assistant for a short time, but not necessarily long-term.

“I’m looking more or less for a ‘now’ thing,” he said.

Another student in the pathway program, senior Sonya Hernandez, felt the same way. She plans to study event management at Metro State University next year, but enrolled in the pathway program to improve her short-term job prospects.

“For me, it was more so about having the opportunity to get a better job after high school rather than working a regular minimum wage job at a fast food place or retail,” the 17-year-old said. “I figured I might as well do it and also get the college credits.”

Kamman said the field’s wages are a bit higher than minimum wage and therefore competitive for teenagers just starting out. Nationwide, the median wage of early childhood workers is $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education. Colorado’s minimum wage is $10.20 this year and will rise to $11.10 in 2019.

The shortage of early childhood workers is a perennial problem in the state. A recent survey of Colorado child care providers found an average annual turnover rate of 16 percent for lead teachers and 22 percent for assistant teachers. In addition, 70 percent of directors reported difficulty in finding teachers for vacant positions.

Early childhood pathway programs like the one at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High represent only a partial solution to the early education workforce crunch. But to Kneppe Walter, that’s OK. If some pathway students use early childhood jobs to work their way through college in unrelated majors, she doesn’t see that as problem.

“They’re still walking away with some great life skills,” she said. “If they could contribute for two to five years, I’d be tickled pink.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ariadna Santos, a student at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School reads to preschoolers during her internship.

Ariadna Santos, a soft-spoken high school junior who also interned at Jefferson County Open School, may well fit this profile.

The 16-year-old, who said she has no younger siblings and has never worked as a babysitter, said the internship made her more comfortable with young children. On a recent day, she sat at a knee-high table and read a picture book about animals to a half-dozen preschoolers. As one little boy repeatedly touched his neighbor’s arms and shoulders, she calmly said, “Let’s not grab other people. Keep your hands to yourself.”

It was the kind of episode Santos found daunting at the beginning. Early in the internship when two children got in a sandbox fight, she had no idea what to do and the lead teacher had to intervene.

“Nowadays, it’s just easier to calm them down and get them to work with each other,” said Santos, whose other career interests include architecture and interior design.

“I don’t really know what I want to do as a career yet so I just really wanted to take this class as an opportunity to see what one of the options could be,” she said.

Even if Santos doesn’t stay in the early childhood workforce permanently, Kneppe Walter is hopeful that the pathway experience will be formative for others in the program.

“What’s lovely about early childhood is it’s got this strong core of social justice to it,” she said. “If students resonate with that idea, ‘I want to be empowered. I want to make a difference,’ then it’s not such a hard sell to go into early childhood.”