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1.4: The Structure of the Field of Early Learning

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    • Gayle Julian & Sophie Truman
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    When looking at an overview of the field of early learning, it can be overwhelming to consider the huge variety of program approaches, settings, and models found within the field. This chapter will focus on the more common programs for children pre-birth to age 8 found currently in the United States that might be interesting to students beginning the journey to become a teacher of young children. In future chapters of this text, program philosophies (sometimes called approaches or curriculum approaches) will be addressed.

    NAEYC has also presented a document from the Power to the Profession work entitled Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession. This document recognized that the field in general includes a very diverse range of individuals and settings that contribute to the field. The document attempts to unify the field and discusses how the United States can make significant and sustained investments in high quality early learning programs. Consideration of this document is the foundation for the discussion regarding how the field is structured.

    Programs for children pre-brith to age 5

    The majority of programs caring for children birth to age 5 are small private, tuition based childcare centers that offer either part day or full day programs. Licensed childcare centers in the state of Washington obtain their license from the Department of Youth, Children and Families. The number of children that a center can be licensed for depends on the space and ages of the children they serve. Families can use tools found on the DCYF website to search for care in their community as well as review any licensing infractions or concerns the department has about a center.

    One framework in place to assure quality of care in Washington State is through the Early Achievers program. This program provides a rating system for childcare providers based on observable elements of quality indicators. In addition, some centers might seek accreditation through NAEYC. This optional accreditation is an independent study of a center focusing on many aspects of a center including the curriculum, environment, education of the teachers as well as many other quality indicators.

    Family childcare centers (located in the operator’s home) are the least visible, yet most prevalent form of childcare in many communities. In Washington state, Family Childcare Homes are licensed and can apply to be Early Achievers sites as well.

    Family, Friends and Neighbor care (FFN) differs from family childcare in that this type of care might include unlicensed grandparents, aunts/uncles, elders, older siblings, friends or neighbors who support families by providing childcare. FFN is the most common type of childcare for infants, toddlers and school-age children before and after school hours. FFN are not regulated by the state, although some FFN providers can receive childcare subsidies for childcare if they are willing to follow DCYF guidelines.

    Image 1.6 FFN provider is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Preschool (sometimes called part day programs and can also include cooperative preschools or nursery schools) are unlicensed education programs that generally offer a school ready curriculum to support children. In many communities, preschools can be housed in community centers, churches, or even outdoors! These programs are not monitored by DCYF and to date, there are no education requirements for teachers working in preschools.

    Other types of childcare available in Washington State include:

    • crisis nurseries that provide care for families in crisis such as domestic violence, homelessness, employment, or other crisis situations,
    • developmental preschools available to some children with special needs often housed at local school districts,
    • private preschools offering curriculum for no more than four hours per day.

    Programs for children age 5 to 8

    There are several types of program options for children age 5 to 8 including kindergarten (found in both public and private schools), elementary or homeschool or school age childcare.

    Most children will enroll in kindergarten at age 5, or shortly after their fifth birthday, depending on the community school district calendar for the community in which the family lives. Historically, kindergarten (a German word translation for “a child’s garden”) was meant to be a bridge between the home and elementary school environment and most kindergartens were housed in local elementary schools. The first public kindergarten in the United States was housed in a St. Louis Missouri elementary school and over the 20th century, kindergarten has changed and been innovated into full day programs with rigorous testing and curriculum. Today, kindergarten looks startlingly like what first grade used to be, and the need for high quality early childhood education prior to kindergarten has been the focus of several studies and summarized by the Alliance for Childhood’s report entitled “Crisis in Kindergarten” (2009).

    Elementary school age children can enroll in either their local community public school in their communities that are funded by federal tax dollars or a private school in which parents pay tuition for their children to attend. In addition to both of those programs, children can be homeschooled. The number of children being homeschooled grew 28.9% between 1999 and 2003, 37.6% between 2003 and 2007, 17.4% between 2007 and 2012. As of 2015-16, around 1,690,000 children were being homeschooled (

    Image 1.7 School Age Care is licensed under CC by 1.0

    What type of program do you see yourself working in, or are currently working in? What are the benefits for you?

    Is there a type of program that you would not be comfortable working in?

    School-age care refers to programs that operate before and after school and during the summer and holiday breaks. School Age programs often include a structured routine and allows children a space to complete homework, build relationships with children that attend schools different than their own, and can be offered through community groups, the YMCA or other parks and recreation programs or private homes. Not all school age programs require licenses.

    This page titled 1.4: The Structure of the Field of Early Learning is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gayle Julian & Sophie Truman.

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