Filthy Dirt Mud Child Play People Boy Max Pixel

March is a long month in Connecticut. And you never know what it will bring:  60 degrees, 10 degrees, snow, wind, rain, ski days and beach days. In March, one thing we can always count on is mud. Adults may see mud as messy, but for young children, mud is pure joy.

My sister Jackie is a preschool teacher. She is especially reminded of why she loves this work when her class is playing in the mud kitchen.  March has puddles, too. What do young children love more than stomping in puddles? Recently Jackie showed me a video of her rain booted class stomping, scooping, and raking in a huge March puddle! Pure joy.

Beth Bye

These little puddle jumpers have no idea about the big challenges she and teachers across Connecticut have faced as early childhood educators over the last 24 months.

The children experience teachers who turn mud and puddles into lessons about big STEM concepts like solids, liquids, evaporation, and weather. Original story telling is happening in these mud kitchens– a key language arts skill.  I was drawn to early childhood 40 years ago because I relished this approach to learning and felt the impact of my strong relationships with children and families. High quality early childhood education supports families and develops eager learners. These mud kitchens, classrooms, and playgrounds plant the seeds for future Connecticut collaborators and innovators!

Recent visits to programs in New Milford, New Haven, Norwich, and Hartford were replete with examples of joy and learning among children in classrooms: fun early math activities, block corner construction sites, engaged story times.  In contrast, my conversations with staff were full of examples of stress, exhaustion, and deep concern for their programs’ futures.

Gov. Ned and Annie Lamont recently joined me recently to visit Women’s League in Hartford – one of the state’s oldest and highest quality child care settings. The governor asked questions, listened to teachers and program leaders who were passionate about their work and shared their struggles.

March has been a muddy time for early childhood providers.  And it’s been muddy in the way that adults experience mud – messy. The major storm that was COVID is clearing, leaving significant structural damage to an industry that was already fragile.

Federal relief funds and Governor Lamont’s ability to get them out quickly helped protect the field from the worst of the storm. $300 million in federal relief and tens of millions of state funds helped programs and helped strained family budgets with subsidized and free child care. Big picture: These funds helped sustain 99% of child care supply in Connecticut. This was not the story across the country where, on average, states lost an average of 9-10% of license child care, according to Child Care Aware.

These funds provided critical temporary relief, COVID has left early childhood professionals exhausted, and families’ child care choices in flux. Programs are short staffed, fiscally challenged, and stretched emotionally from two years of helping stressed-out families and children.

Spring and summer do not feel like they are just around the corner this March. And the optimism that Build Back Better held out to fully fund state child care systems is stuck in the mud in Washington, D.C.

Amazingly, in the midst of their own struggles, hundreds of teachers, family child care providers, directors and families have contacted the state’s Office of Early Childhood with guidance, concerns, suggestions, and offers of help. They have engaged with legislators, the federal delegation, and governor to highlight the urgency of this moment.  

They have rallied too. Providers and parents have joined with philanthropy and business to push for an improved system. The energy and resilience of early childhood educators and these advocates with their focus on improving early childhood education in Connecticut is reason for optimism.

Connecticut is poised to be a model for the nation about how pick up the pieces and build a child care infrastructure for today and the future. We are not poised because we have the perfect plan, or all the funding to fix everything.  We are poised because we are a state of innovation and collaboration.

Never have so many leaders been together in the proverbial mud kitchen working to form a sustainable early childhood system.  Our early childhood leaders are aligned and in position to be teachers and guides in the March mud.

I have confidence in Connecticut and in our early childhood and elected leaders to make significant progress this spring. These very leaders led Connecticut and the nation with the state’s COVID response together. Our children, families and employers are depending on us to lead once again and together have a lasting impact on Connecticut future.

Beth Bye is the Commissioner of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood.