Play-based programs tend to have rocky relationships with regulation. This is not because play-based programs do not comply with regulations, but because the scope and authority of the regulations themselves don’t exactly mesh evenly with the scope and authority of childhood and developmentally appropriate practice.
Never is this clearer than the definition of supervision as outlined by the state of Nebraska’s child care center regulations, which state that “adequate and appropriate supervision includes: 1. Knowing the whereabouts and being within sight or sound of all children at all times; 2. Being awake, alert, attentive, and responsive to the needs of all children, and 3. Protecting or removing children from harm.” This sounds wonderfully appropriate. A well-written description. One that is impossible to enforce correctly.
Because here’s the deal. People file complaints about my program. Often. Nebraska ranks nearly last in Early Childhood Education in most studies. Americans generally don’t know what early childhood education is supposed to look like, because the public perception has changed so many times in recent years as. Nebraskans in particular are exceedingly confused about it. People don’t like the idea of children engaging with their independence and budding self-confidence because it does look scary to the untrained or under-educated eye.
So when people see my group of 3-6 year-old children toying with chopped-up 2x4’s instead of sitting monotonously at a table with a coloring book or worksheet, they go into convulsions. When they observe our kids climbing up on our privacy fence (mind you, no more than two feet off the ground) to watch the whir of traffic in our city buzz past our school, they call CPS. Surely, they think, we must be neglectful to allow children touch something that might give them a splinter or climb something they could fall from and scrape their knee. Surely, we’re just not paying attention.
I’ve written before about just how difficult it is to do this work. I truly believe, based on my experience, that running a classroom that is static, a tight ship, very controlled, in which children are “well behaved” and do not as a rule do not challenge authority is the easiest job you can get. You just have to be mean—disguised as firm. You just have to be controlling—disguised as respectfully formidable and consistent. You just have to be completely ignorant to the reality of child development—disguised as knowledgeable about education.
Because the exogenous influences of large corporations and higher government to build better office drones who do not have the skills to jump in with both feet, take risks, or expect better at all times is successful, these types of risk-free, danger-free, conflict-averse, authoritative environments are what a sufficient number of parents desire to motivate our local governments to encourage owners and operators of childcare environments to yield, because otherwise, these government licensing bodies may appear to these sadly mistaken parents as not doing their job. So in a way, we’re alike, in that we’re all being affected negatively by misinformation.
It’s just I want to fight the misinformation. I will not yield to it. I don’t want to perpetuate it.
Among the recent complaint that was filed were claims that we had no toys for the children. I wrote about that in our last blog post. That children were sitting on countertops using scissors to cut paper. That children were crying and not being attended to. That children were climbing up a repurposed bunk bed we’ve turned into a loft, without a standard ladder. That children were wandering into hallways and other rooms/closets and that teachers were unaware. That children were removing slats from a table to play inside the frame of the table, which had sharp edges. That children were climbing onto windowsills in the wall and jumping from them to the ground and that teachers were watching this and not telling children “no”.
Now, literally all of this is something you can expect to see in a play-based childcare program. It might not look like the children are “well-controlled” but that has never been and will never be our goal. Our goal is to develop respectful relationships where children do not damage our property or hurt anyone, and we do not refuse them the opportunities they need to learn and grow. Pretty simple, correct? Even in the case of children who are crying and not being attended to, it’s fairly clear that when a child is crying and you have a respectful enough relationship with that child to know if and how they want to be approached, or perhaps if they happen to have any special needs that involve short-lived outbursts that would be refueled by unnecessary adult engagement, that perception and subjectivity play a major role there.
So, imagine my surprise when I open a letter with a summary of a complaint investigation that states that the entire complaint was substantiated upon review.
I have several issues with how the investigation was conducted. First, it was conducted by an inspector we’ve never met—someone completely unacquainted to or educated on our philosophy. Second, this inspector never properly identified herself nor why she was there. Third, as it became apparent why she was there, staff had tried to give a cliff’s notes explanation about our philosophy, my education, and my beliefs, to which the inspector responded, in paraphrase, “I know who Travis is and what he believes and sometimes I think he takes it a little too far”. Fourth, in her notes, she used language that staff "attempted to supervise" children, but children had "no concept" that they needed to stay in one place. Our entire facility is one large open room with a back hallway, storage rooms, and restrooms all situated off of the open room. The idea that a child opening a door to a storage room or walking through a back hallway is a breach of supervision but letting a child close the door behind them in a restroom is not is mind-boggling. Plus, the phrasing that staff "attempted" to supervise and children have "no concept" of staying in the main room is asinine, offensive, unprofessional, and just plain stupid.
That said, below I present my response to this inspector’s notes and substantiations of the complaint in the hopes that others fighting for childhood and the freedom of/to play may be able to also file objections to any time government officials impede the work and progress we impact every day.
Programs like ours are becoming more and more popular, and every one I visit operates like ours, and many have unfortunately horrible relationships with licensing bodies due to severe misunderstandings of the newest research validating our practice. I would like for that to not be the case in Nebraska. Below are just some of my objections that I would love to discuss in an administrative meeting with representatives of the department.
- Scissors that belong in the program are meant for children’s use. They're children's scissors. These scissors are sharp enough to cut paper but not enough to cut hair or skin. The inspector noted that children were using children's scissors and still chose to substantiate the claim that we were not removing children from harm by allowing them to use scissors while sitting safely on a countertop. The idea that scissors like these present an immediate risk to children in our care is overly sensitive and in all honesty, laughably asinine. It implies that children are not by nature self-preservative and danger-averse, which doesn't bode well as the very first substantiation. If DHHS is to start off this case believing children would just wander off of cliffs if adults weren't there to yell at them and tell them "no", there's no hope for our program's practices, and no hope for childhood in Nebraska.
- We care for a number of children with special needs and operate with an anti-bias, anti-apologist approach in these regards. [Redacted to protect sensitive information regarding children, summarized that some of our children just cry... a lot...] It is not a violation of the standard of supervision to seem to “not notice” behaviors that we are explicitly instructed to allow the space to exist. For DHHS to imply, through use of the phrase "not notice", that our staff are just idiotically unaware of their surroundings due to the fact that we do not force children to move/play in groups, but rather individuals, is not a professional approach to the attempt to substantiate claims of subtle neglect. Phrasing matters. Supervision is a highly subjective word. Even the definition as laid out in the regulations is too vague to substantiate claims that letting children express their emotions freely without unnecessary and provocative attempts to coddle or soothe could be considered a violation of supervision standards.
- There are “holes in the walls” as defined in the report. Our building was originally an office space that had large windows to every office. When the space was re-purposed for childcare, construction workers removed the glass and made these free openings in the walls lined with trim, like windowsills. Yes, we allow children to climb on them and do not intend on ever ending this practice. They're child-height. They're safe for climbing. They are a temptation not because climbing is wrong, but because climbing is necessary for proper development. Children need it and seek it out when it's a possibility. Childhood is risky business. Risks must be taken to properly live. Chaos must be embraced. Any concern that a fall from this height would present serious risk is unfounded. As a student of Neuroscience, explicitly studying children and currently in the throes of research regarding concussions in children, this notion is bad comedy at best. Children fall and get hurt just walking due to the height of their head from the floor. Shall we make them crawl for life to avoid any possible injury? What about playground equipment that involves similar climbing? Monkey bars are surely higher and far more risky. Slides? A child could turn their body and fall right off the top. Zip lines? A child could become airborne for yards with the right momentum. If a child has the dexterity to climb up something, they develop the dexterity to balance on that as well, and even the ability to climb down. If they fall, their body creates muscle memory for the purpose of not falling again. This is basic child development. The choice to substantiate that we are not properly removing children from harm implies that "harm" has a very liberal definition--anything that could potentially make a child sad. Shall I ban paper because allowing children to handle paper is not sufficiently removing children from the harm of papercuts? Stepping on a LEGO is surely a similar pain to falling from a height of 36 inches, will DHHS be banning blocks?
- I understand my staff may not have appropriately discussed the purpose behind the lack of materials in the classroom due to the inspector never properly identifying herself or her purpose of visiting. I have addressed this here: http://www.progressivepreceptors.com/blog/we-removed-all-of-the-toys-from-our-childcare-center Staff were also told that the inspector was aware of my beliefs and that the inspector believed that sometimes they just "go too far". I'm missing the point where embracing scientific findings and adapting practice to suit facts can be considered "going too far". Perhaps Nebraska just isn't ready for how far we have to go before children are in truly developmentally appropriate care conditions? I don't want to believe that, but in regard to this investigation, I have my serious doubts about how knowledgeable our licensing body truly is.
- The substantiation that a child wandering into a separate room in a 2000-square-foot classroom that is just through an open door (or no door at all) is a violation of the regulation “staff must be present in rooms where children are receiving care at all times” is a bastardization of the intent of that regulation. To also write that children do not have the “concept” that they must stay in one room at all times is incredibly offensive to the intelligence of the children for whom we care. They are independent. They are curious. They explore. They do not lack "the concept". We are not going to put the fear of God in them that they must be non-curious and dependent at all times in order to “stay safe” as defined by a licensing inspector. It is not the children's responsibility to make sure adults know where they are. In a program as small as ours, it's physically impossible to not know where a child is, even if you can't see them. To suggest that a child walking into a hallway that is part of the classroom is a violation of supervision is to suggest that if a child is sitting behind a shelf in any other program to where a teacher can’t see them, supervision is violated. Nebraska's credentialed early childhood education teachers are taught to separate the classroom into areas with shelving, so surely every childcare program is out of supervision compliance based on that standard, since DHHS clearly doesn't understand what the word "or" means if supervision means "within sight or sound of children" and we can be written up for not being in sight of children. Further, I noticed you've substantiated the claim that we are allowing children to play near open wires when in your own words you conceded that the wires are not at all electrical? That seems confusing to me.
- Again, if children have the muscular dexterity to climb our loft, they will climb our loft and no, we will not tell children they are “not allowed” to climb or jump. We would not have any of this furniture in this environment if it were not explicitly built for children to be children around. I don’t believe there should ever be a single item in the early childhood environment that children are not allowed to utilize with their whole body. If a single piece of furniture could not support the whole weight of a child standing or jumping on it, it would be, frankly, stupid to have it in an environment that I advertise as being "for children". We will not be purchasing any stairs for our loft until I see that DHHS has implemented a policy of forcing childcare centers to get rid of any non-stair climbing equipment such as ladders that lead to objects like monkey bars, slides, and other large-motor play equipment and replace them with stairs. If we are to be forced to engage in an anti-risk, anti-climbing regulation that simply does not exist, I want other programs to be held to a similar standard before I will begrudgingly pretend to comply.
- There is a severe misunderstanding of childhood, play, and our mission if you can believe for even a second that we are just oblivious to the fact that children take risks at our program that may look scary to the untrained or under-educated-on-the-topic eye. What sets us apart from other programs is that we do not kill children’s imagination and budding self-confidence in order to reduce risk. I could in some other dimension get a set of stars for the loft, but I would forever encourage children to never use those stairs and climb up using their arms and core, because core dexterity is a major component today’s children are lacking as a prerequisite for handwriting.
- We will not be enforcing a nap time. We offer nap every day to children after lunch. This does not include any kind of forceful group activity. We offer nap by asking if anyone’s tired, multiple times throughout the day. This leads to children napping frequently, and honestly, wherever they drop. Many times, we will move the child to a cot and sit with them in the nap area. Other times, especially for our children who have specific special needs, we will follow our directions from their primary caregivers to let them sleep where they are uninterrupted.
- Perhaps the reason Nebraska has been previously labeled one of the last states in the nation for quality of early childhood education could be the fact that programs are intimidated to treat children as if they’re all the same, intimidated to embrace low-activity, low-risk, and low-work curricula, to treat children’s environments like hospitals, and to avoid every shred of risk of even the slightest injury. At least, that’s what major research says is killing children’s experiences in the early years. Adopting overly academic, overly rigorous, overly cautious, and overly authoritative child development programs that are completely unsupported by science or statistics is causing far too many problems for the education field as a whole, and it starts with the decisions we make as early childhood practitioners. If we cannot be supported or reach compromises with our licensing bodies in these regards, the state of Early Childhood Education in Nebraska will be doomed. Therefore, I will continue to object to any enforcement I deem unnecessary and egregious to property advocate for and further what I know to be correct and right.
Please reply to me with a phone-call or a meeting. This is all I will offer in writing at this time. I'm opening the door with the written word in hopes that it can be read more than once by more than one person and properly digested in order to make further discussion more productive by voice or in person.