I was excited but nervous at the same time. Yes I want the journalist, Debbie Bowman, to come and write but will the philosophy and purpose of the program come through in her writing?
She spent about half the morning at the centre. First interviewing me, before the families arrived, then moving around and chatting with the grown ups in the room. I'm glad she did that because the families are the biggest part of my philosophy for my StrongStart centre; building a community together to learn and share with each other.
Read on and I think you'll agree with me that Debbie did a fantastic job explaining what StrongStart is all about.
Giving Kids a Strong Start
BC StrongStart program provides a healthy and fun introduction to learning for kids and caregivers
Every corner, every nook and cranny, is stocked with toys, games, books and art supplies that are there for the sole purpose of helping a young mind grow and have fun. In the storytelling corner, underneath the big green leaf, are stacks of books and comfy cushions.
In another corner is the aquarium where the tadpoles are just about to sprout legs. There’s the home life area, with a miniature kitchen complete with appliances, dishes, pots, pans and pretend food. The art centre with everything imaginable to create works of art has all the supplies within the child’s reach. Near the front door is a netted enclosure where the caterpillars are hanging out, waiting to emerge as butterflies. And smack dab in the middle of the room is the dramatic play area—this time it’s a kid-sized bus complete with steering wheel, seats for passengers, safety handles and pull cords.
It is so colorful and fun, it makes one wish they were a young child. Maureen Wagner is the facilitator of the Brooklyn StrongStart program. Trained as an Early Childhood Educator, Wagner has worked with children and families for approximately 30 years. For the past six years, she’s facilitated the StrongStart program at Brooklyn Elementary and has turned the StrongStart room into the amazing cornucopia of fun that it is.
The StrongStart BC program was initiated by the Ministry of Education seven years ago to address the growing belief that education during a child’s earliest years is critically important. In fact, one US study, the Abecedarian Project, demonstrated that young children who receive high quality early childhood education from birth to age five excel in reading and math and are more likely to graduate from high school and receive a four year university degree. The study concluded that a child’s attendance in an early childhood program is directly associated with long lasting benefits that reach well into one’s adulthood.
“The parent is the child’s first teacher,” says Wagner. “A child’s education doesn’t begin when a child enters kindergarten—it begins at birth.”
British Columbia’s Ministry of Education also believes that the benefits of early childhood education should be available to every child in our province, so the StrongStart program is completely free of charge. “Not all parents can afford daycare or preschool,” Wagner notes. “The StrongStart program makes early childhood education available to every family.”
Currently there are more than 300 StrongStart programs operating in the province, and more than 33,000 children access the program every year. Here in the Comox Valley there are four full time StrongStart centres at the Queenesh, Cumberland, Courtenay and Brooklyn Elementary schools. In addition there are five outreach sites that run on a reduced schedule at the Denman and Hornby elementary schools, and Aspen, Royston and Miracle Beach elementary schools.
Unlike daycare or preschool, the StrongStart program is not a place where caregivers drop off their children. “Instead of a drop off program, StrongStart is a drop-in program designed for both the child and the adult,” says Wagner. In fact, parents or grandparents can drop in anytime the program is running, between the hours of 8:30 am and 12:00 pm, Monday through Friday during the school year. According to Wagner, that’s where the magic really happens.
“Here at StrongStart, by carefully setting an environment that meet the child’s interests and developmental needs, both the child and the adult are invited to play and learn together. By providing early childhood education programs like StrongStart, we are assisting the family to build their child’s language, basic academic and social skills, such as working and getting along with others, through play.”
That one-on-one time between a young child and an adult is truly golden, says Wagner. “StrongStart provides the chance for uninterrupted play between children and their caregivers. There’s no phone to answer, no laundry to fold. It’s just 100 per cent playtime; 100 per cent child and caregiver time.”
Jody Williams has attended StrongStart with her three-year-old daughter Olivia for the past two years, and she’s a big fan of Wagner and the Brooklyn program. “Mrs. Wagner is one of those teachers you’ll never forget,” Williams says. “It’s truly amazing how Mrs. Wagner always goes above and beyond expectations.”
Williams especially appreciates how Wagner and the children will choose a theme together, and how Wagner will then transform the room to fit the agreed-upon theme. For example, last month the kids went on a bus ride and for a visit to the bus yard. “Most of the kids had never been on a bus,” says Williams. “It was pretty exciting for most of the kids.” That excitement continued when the families returned to the room the next day, because Wagner had redesigned the dramatic play area to be a transit bus. “It was so much fun to help create the bus in the room afterwards,” Williams says. “Mrs. Wagner created the shell, but the kids and the parents finished it together.”
Williams also notes that it’s not just her daughter Olivia who has benefited from the program. The activities and crafts they do together at StrongStart are often things they can imitate at home. “When I attend the StrongStart program with Olivia, I see so much I would never have thought of —things Olivia and I can do together at home,” she says. “Really, the parents in the room are learning just as much as the kids.”
That has been Wagner’s goal from the start. “My philosophy to the parents is ‘You can do this’,” Wagner says. “StrongStart shows parents that spending quality and enriching time together doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.”
Parents also benefit from the program because it’s an opportunity for them to meet, share ideas, and make connections. “When the parents get together at the StrongStart program it’s a place where they can talk to one another and learn from one another,” she says. “The adults ask each other advice and they share their experiences, all which helps to develop a positive nurturing environment for the children.”
The program also helps the caregivers become comfortable in their child’s school environment. “Here at Brooklyn Elementary my focus is to set up a program where families feel welcome, comfortable and confident,” Wagner says. “I’ll often have home baked goodies for the adults, and the coffee is always on.” By encouraging the parents to become involved early on in their child’s education, the StrongStart program makes it more likely that the parents will stay engaged as their child’s education continues.
“StrongStart is part of creating a strong foundation with the families and the schools by buddying with older classes, accessing the gym and library and taking part in the many activities that the school offers. We are assisting in building trust and confidence between families and the school environment.”
Good news travels fast, and word is getting around that the StrongStart program is the place to be. “It can be really busy in here. In fact, one day we had 50 children show up. Though it was exciting, it’s not a day I’d like to repeat,” says Wagner with a laugh. On average, 30 to 35 children drop in at one time or another during the course of each day. Considering that each child has an adult with them, it’s easy to imagine how busy the Brooklyn StrongStart room must get at times.
And the kids are busy too, learning that is—though they probably don’t know that. To the kids, they’re just having fun. But according to Wagner, that’s the very thing she’s hoping to achieve.
“StrongStart is a play-based environment that builds on the interests of the children. It provides a variety of play options like art, dramatic play, science and more which can be intermingled depending on the children’s exploration and creativity. A play-based program allows the children to take risks, problem solve and delve further into a topic.” Wagner calls it learning through discovery.
Wagner also works hard to make sure the children have plenty of time to discover their community and to experience nature. “We live in a beautiful area, so as much as possible we explore and learn through outdoor adventures in nature,” she says. “I’m really trying to help the kids make lasting connections to the outside world.”
Those outdoor adventures can be pretty magical. For example, Wagner heard of a new fairy door trail up in Cumberland. “I thought it was something the kids would enjoy, so we took a field trip there to explore the trail,” says Wagner. The kids were so enthralled that Wagner decided to help the kids create their own magical fairy door trail. They painted wooden doors and installed them at the base of trees in a nearby forest. They also created their own fairies out of things they found in nature and placed them throughout the trail. “The path between the fairy doors is quite worn down now,” says Wagner. “Fairy Lane has become very popular with the children and the local community.”
StrongStart is a multi-generational program that creates connections between people of all ages. The children themselves range in age from newborn to five, and the adults range from young parents to grandparents. The kids even interact with older kids from the school on a regular basis. This is called the buddy system and it’s based on the Roots of Empathy program that was started in Toronto. Big Buddy Day, as it’s called, occurs between the StrongStart children and the Grade 7 students every second week.
Olivia’s mom, Jody Williams, believes that the interaction between the younger and older children is vitally important, especially in this era of bullying. “The buddy system is a great program,” she says. “When the StrongStart kids buddy up with the seventh graders it’s great to see how, despite the age gap, the kids are forging relationships. The older kids learn to truly enjoy the younger ones and from those relationships respect and empathy can be learned.”
To further enhance the multigenerational aspect of the program, once a month the Brooklyn StrongStart children visit the residents of Glacier View Lodge. “When the children come to visit it really affects the residents,” says Liz Friis, director of Resident Lifestyle and Community Programmer at Glacier View. “There is a twinkle in their eyes and their smiles are broad.
“There is a sense of peace in the room too. It’s just a joy to watch” Friis adds, noting that the children are also positively affected. “These multi-generational visits create a culture of people and a generation of youth that respect their elders and who are willing to help in their communities.”
StrongStart is all about creating connections and community. “During the six years of facilitating the StrongStart centre my belief that family and community are key in the education of our children has really grown,” says Wagner. “I strongly believe in the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child, and here at StrongStart, I try to create an atmosphere for others to believe it too.”
For more information visit: web.sd71.bc.ca/strongstart