Last Saturday, nearly two hundred family child care providers sat in hushed silence at our Ninth Annual Family Child Care Conference. This year’s conference theme was “Wonderful: Fostering Wonder, Curiosity and Joy in Young Children,” and our opening speaker, Niyonu Spann, had asked providers to recall a moment of amazement or wonder from their childhood.
What did providers remember from that experience? “Freedom,” one provider responded. Others remembered “community,” “trust,” “confidence,” curiosity,” and “unconditional love.” For Spann, the founder of 4 Circles Beyond and CEIO, “it was discovery and wondering in a safe, quiet, uninterrupted space that allowed for the intersection of wonder, curiosity, and joy.”
As caregivers of children in their earliest years, the family child care providers in attendance at All Our Kin’s conference have daily opportunities to help build and shape children’s curiosity. “How we feel about being curious, about being wonder-full, we learn early,” Spann said. By building an environment conducive to wonder, Spann went on, providers can “nurture that part of a child that allows them to explore difference and encourages deeper learning.”
On Saturday, providers spent an entire day exploring the nature of wonder. They found the new in the familiar, asked open-ended questions, and delighted in new materials and unusual objects. Throughout the conference, providers mingled and hugged in the hallways, sharing their experiences and building a sense of belonging to a statewide community of professional educators. They left with new friendships and a wealth of strategies for supporting children’s natural curiosity. They also had a chance to meet our surprise guest—Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro!
When Congresswoman DeLauro addressed the providers, she thanked them for helping working parents find high-quality, affordable care and for helping young kids “get the critical early foundation” they need. “The earliest experiences are essential for the long term outcomes of children,” said the Congresswoman. “That foundation will help them succeed in anything they choose to do in their lives.” Congresswoman DeLauro stressed that access to enriching early experiences is a matter of equity. “We have to give every child the chance to wonder,” she said. “That’s what you do.” Our providers were thrilled by Congresswoman DeLauro’s visit, and rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation after her speech.
For many providers, the conference workshops were another highlight of the day. These bilingual presentations included sessions on helping children find joy through music, using the outdoors as a classroom, developmentally-appropriate play, helping young children understand and experience science and nature, introducing beautiful or unusual objects to stimulate curiosity and encourage learning, and more. Presenters included visitors from the New Haven Free Public Library, the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, the Yale University Art Gallery, and other community institutions.
In a workshop on unusual objects, providers entered a classroom to find paint cans containing a live ladybug and the materials to make “sticky” balls (see inset). “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” said presenter Sandy Malmquist of The Connecticut Children’s Museum. Malmquist encouraged providers to use rare objects like these to put children in a position to wonder, and she reminded providers to answer the unspoken questions of children too young to speak. “Our job is to answer the questions we have to imagine they’re asking,” said Malmquist. “If we don’t answer those unspoken questions, we’ve missed 3 years.”
A few classrooms away, providers in the “Dirty, Sticky, Slippery, Gooey, Sloppy: Experience the Joy of Messy” workshop visited a half-dozen stations laden with materials to pique curiosity and excite the senses. Providers rifled through aromatic wood chips, molded make-at-home play-doh, got messy with colorful foams, kneaded “Clean Mud” (recipe at left), and experimented with a color-blending “Magic Bubble Bag.” Presenter Sharon Adams of the UMASS Donahue Institute emphasized that curiosity-filled experiences must be child-directed and child-paced. “These things don’t happen quickly,” said Adams. “Children need long periods of time in which to fully experience something.”
During her workshop on creating a safe outdoor space for children to play and learn, Common Ground School Garden Resource Center’s Jill Keating Herbst encouraged providers to get close with plants and insects in their backyards, even if doing so made them a bit uncomfortable. “It’s important that we conquer our fears and model [exploration],” she said. Provider Claudia Marin chimed in to share her own experience, that young children often become inspired to take the first step into unknown experiences by modeling the inquisitiveness of older children in her program.
Following the workshops, providers gathered together for a concluding session that featured a bubble artist (or “Bubbleologist”), who helped them experience wonder firsthand. The Bubbleologist drew applause and appreciation for his performance, which ended with encasing several conference attendees in full-body bubbles. The conference concluded with an amazing sense of energy and positivity as providers and All Our Kin staff literally danced their way out of the auditorium.
“As adults, we can also marvel at what children do,” noted Hamden provider Maria Carmen Magana in one of the conference workshops. As Magana so beautifully explained, wonder resides in both children and adults. We’re thrilled that so many of our providers joined us on Saturday for a day of wonder and creativity. We hope that the conference will inspire and inform providers in their work with young children in the months and years to come.
All Our Kin’s annual conference is made possible by the generous support of the Lewis G. Schaeneman, Jr. Foundation and Yale University.