In 2002, the Connecticut Children’s Museum developed “Mornings at the Museum,” a free monthly program for family child care providers and the children in their programs. Twelve years later, the program continues: some All Our Kin providers have been attending Mornings at the Museum for up to eight years, and we continue to introduce the program to the new providers in our network. I recently sat down with Sandy Malmquist, the Director of the Children’s Museum, to talk about Mornings at the Museum and learn how it promotes literacy and learning in family child care programs.
The Connecticut Children’s Museum opened in 2001 as “an early childhood mecca” for kids and adults who work with them. “We made a few unorthodox decisions,” Sandy told me, including limiting the Museum’s hours so that it is closed to the public most days of the week. Instead, organized groups – summer camps, school programs, etc. – come for scheduled educational field trips. Family child care programs were on the Museum staff’s radar from the beginning, in large part because of All Our Kin’s advocacy efforts, and Sandy soon created the Mornings at the Museum program to help providers connect with their colleagues, develop their programs’ curricula, and access high-quality educational materials.
Mornings at the Museum
One Thursday morning every month, 18 family child care providers bring the children in their care to the Museum to play, read, and learn. The program begins with unstructured time for the children to explore the museum’s themed rooms representing eight different kinds of intelligence. One room is a life-size replica of the classic book Goodnight Moon, complete with fireplace, props, and copies of the book in different languages. Another contains a children’s post office and a mural inspired by the New Haven community. The walls of the Naturalist Room are painted with nature-inspired murals, and in one corner, a live beehive – encased in glass – hums with activity. Children touch and compare bits of tree bark, sea shells, and preserved animal skeletons. In the hallway, an ant farm hangs on the wall at child eye level, surrounded by picture books about ants and wooden ant blocks. “You can’t help but learn in these rooms,” Sandy said. “You literally bump into learning everywhere you turn.”
As the children play, providers help them engage with the different materials and get tips from Children’s Museum staff on how to incorporate new concepts into their own curricula and make their programs better. The unstructured play time is a good way for Museum staff to connect with providers, chat with them about challenges they’ve been having, and give them suggestions about their interactions with the children in their program. It is also an opportunity for providers to see their colleagues teaching, playing, and dealing with conflicts. Because they work in their homes all day, providers are often isolated from each other; All Our Kin was founded in part to combat this isolation and create more opportunities for them to connect, including our professional development workshops and social gatherings. One of the reasons why Mornings at the Museum is such a fantastic resource is that it encourages providers to communicate with each other and make lasting friendships. “Now, all the providers in Mornings at the Museum know each other – some have been coming for seven or eight years,” Sandy said. “If there’s a new provider one month, she meets the others, and maybe a few of them even live and work in her neighborhood. They get support from one another.”
Child Care Providers as “Literary Ambassadors”
At 10:30 a.m., all 18 providers and the children in their programs gather together to read a book in both Spanish and English (past selections include Knuffle Bunny/El Conejito Knuffle and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie/Si le das una galletita a un ratón). Afterwards, each provider receives a copy of the book for their child care program along with a “curriculum bag” full of materials inspired by the book. “One month we read 10 Button Book/Los 10 botones and we included a bag of big plastic buttons in different colors so that providers could help the kids practice counting after they left the Museum,” Sandy explained. This collective reading process allows providers to learn how to incorporate read-aloud sessions into their own programs and engage children with reading in creative ways. For providers who have participated in the program for multiple years, the free books and materials become integral to their programs’ success: our providers often tell us that many of the books in their homes came from their monthly visits to the museum.
The Children’s Museum also gives a copy of the morning’s bilingual book to each child. “Many families need books desperately,” Sandy told me, “and research shows that helping them build a family library amplifies opportunities for their kids to read.” When parents come at the end of the day to pick up their children, providers tell them about the book and pass on the lessons they learned to promote literacy. In this way, the Mornings at the Museum program encourages providers to see themselves as “literacy ambassadors” to the families they work with. All Our Kin supports this vital work by giving providers the resources and knowledge they need to improve their child care programs, as well as creating trainings led by child development experts – including Sandy herself.
The Mornings at the Museum program has been wildly successful. “What fascinates me is the extraordinarily high rate of attendance. Every month, one hundred people come. They come on the bus, they walk, they do whatever it takes to get here, year after year,” Sandy said.
Community partnerships are critical for cities hoping to foster growth, development, and a sense of collaboration. All Our Kin is thrilled to have such a close relationship with the Connecticut Children’s Museum. The Mornings at the Museum series complements the work that our own educational consultants do to promote high-quality child care programs, and gives providers a space to connect with each other. It helps providers think about and understand child development in new ways, and inspires them to see their programs as real spaces of learning. As Sandy explained, “My goal is for the providers to see themselves as teachers, because that’s what they are. Their homes are classrooms for these children.”