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Make the Most of Water Play This Summer

Whether you’re preparing for summer activities in the classroom or in your home, children greatly benefit from the wonderful world of water play. Playing with water presents a range of opportunities for children to develop their fine and gross motor skills, to work on sharing and social skills, to explore concepts of math and science, and to relax and have fun while learning.

How to build your own water play environment

Water play can be as simple or as elaborate as your budget allows. While there are pre-made water play tables for purchase, it’s easy to create your own with items you may already have.

In the classroom, a water play station could be several shallow plastic bins outdoors or indoors over a tarp. At home, it could be a bathtub filled with a few inches of water or a baby pool in the yard. Common items from school, home or nature, like cups, ladles, squeeze bottles, toys, leaves or sand, are a good place to start — but the possibilities are endless, and children will enjoy a variety of options.

Make sure the items can’t easily break and are child safe. We recommend avoiding straws for very young children. All water play should always be supervised by an adult.

Connecting water play to learning

Once you buy or build an environment, it’s time to play! Water play activities present many opportunities for learning and skill development.

Children can increase their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination by using tools to grab, pour, squirt, stir and squeeze. Because water play typically occurs in a limited space with few supplies, children can also practice their communication and social skills by sharing tools with each other and working together to achieve a goal, like moving water from one bucket to another with cups.

Exploration and learning is plentiful in water play. Basic mathematics concepts like full, empty, half and less, or measuring amounts of water and comparing volumes, can have fun, hands-on application in water play. You can also take dry substances, like dirt, sand or rocks, and allow children to explore how adding these items to water can change their properties.

To make the most of water play, be an enabler — not a director. Water play, like other forms of play, is most impactful when children take an active role and ownership in their experiences as the leaders of their learning journeys.

  • Structure your water play area to have interesting and challenging materials. Once children get used to using certain tools, try incorporating others for play. For example, if children have been using tongs to pick up objects out of the water, introduce ladles as another method. You can also alter the water itself: add a few drops of mild dish soap to create bubbles with a whisk or wand or add food coloring to explore what combinations create new colors.
  • Ask open ended questions, such as “What do you think will happen to the volume of water if we drop this rock in a cup?” This is a chance for you to model new vocabulary with children and encourage prediction.
  • Give children the chance to debrief the situation, telling others what they did and learned through play.

Many child care providers already have water play in their curriculum, but we hope these tips give you ideas for new, fun ways to step it up a notch. If you’re ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



650+ Reasons to Be Thankful

We’ve declared 2022 The Year of Quality, and while we celebrate the quality child care providers enrolled in Step Up to Quality all year long, we especially want to lift them up on National Provider Appreciation Day, which happens on the Friday before Mother’s Day every year.

Participating in Step Up to Quality means that child care providers are already going above and beyond regular licensing requirements to continuously improve the quality of their care. During the pandemic, providers across Nebraska went even further to ensure the safety and health of the children they teach and nurture every day.

There are more than 650 providers participating in Step Up to Quality across Nebraska now. We want each of them to know how much we appreciate their hard work. There is no doubt in our minds that they are quality. Which is why we recently sent them a reminder of this, as a thank you for all their extra efforts.

If you have a child enrolled at a family child care home or a center, please thank the teachers, directors, cooks, custodians, volunteers and everyone involved in educating your child. While this is an extremely rewarding field, these have been the most difficult times in recent memory. A sincere “thank you” from parents goes a long way.

To our valued providers: your work matters. The children in your care are learning, developing and growing because of you. Thank you for being a part of the Step Up to Quality family. We appreciate you. You are quality.



How to Shift Children’s Art Activities to Focus on the Process

Artistic expression is beneficial in early childhood settings, especially when it comes to unrestricted exploration. As a child care provider, you probably already have art activities in your curriculum. Or as a parent, you may have art projects that you facilitate for your child at home. But are these activities focused on the product or the process? Examining the difference and incorporating these tips can help improve your quality of care and strengthen children’s development, like fine motor, language and cognitive skills.

What is process-focused art?

Process-focused art is when children are given an open-ended project to express themselves through their work. There are no step-by-step guidelines or samples to model where everyone’s final piece looks the same — which may leave children feeling frustrated if they don’t “create correctly” or finish their project. Instead, children are given tools and encouragement to explore and create, fostering a sense of enjoyment, discovery and pride in their work through meaningful play.

While painting and drawing are the most frequently visited forms of early childhood art activities, you can consider ways to approach music, theater and dancing through this lens, too.

How to guide process-focused art

It may seem like a contradiction to “guide” process-focused art, but as an educator or parent, you’re the one who is setting the stage for the activity and providing the tools for expression. Here are some tips for any type of process-focused art activity:

  • Offer self-serve supplies that children can easily use independently
  • Allow children to come and go as they please
  • Provide interesting art materials
  • Allow children to follow their interests
  • Keep the focus on open-ended activities that don’t have just one outcome
  • Be playful, joyful and encouraging in the art-making process
  • Ask open-ended questions and make objective comments about children’s work

The transition from product-focused to process-focused art can be tough. When children’s end products don’t look intentional (to the children, they are!) or widely vary from each other’s, it can seem like no progress has been made. When planning a process-focused art activity, think about what the children will do first and foremost, rather than what they will make. This will keep your focus on the process and developmental outcomes behind the art experience, rather than prioritizing a “refrigerator-worthy” activity focused on the product.

Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a provider who’s ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, we’d love to have you on board. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



Nebraska Child Care Stabilization Grant: Get Ready for Round Two

In 2021, Nebraska child care providers had the opportunity to apply for the Child Care Stabilization Grant to stabilize the child care sector and ensure families would have equal access to high quality care. Fortunately, many Step Up to Quality providers received funds to help improve the quality of their care during an uncertain time.

Marti Spitz, the director at Beginnings Early Development Center in Hastings, is grateful for the support.

“The Child Care Stabilization Grant couldn’t have come at a better time!” Marti said. “After an uncertain year in the child care industry, we are now able to breathe a sigh of relief. This grant allows us to continue providing quality child care, hire and train new staff, cover expenses and give my dedicated team a much-needed retention bonus. In a field often overlooked, the pandemic has reminded us how vital child care is to families, employers and communities.”

Sue Morse, director of the nonprofit Alpine Village Community Daycare in Verdigre, is also thankful for the relief, especially with a center that normally relies on in-person fundraising events.

“With the ability to use some of the funds for payroll, we were able to provide extra educational supplies for the children, acquire necessary cleaning supplies and give tuition relief for some who struggled to pay for care,” Sue said. “At one point, we had to close for a week because too many staff members were sick. The funds allowed us to give families tuition relief during this time and pay staff a portion of their wage as well. Times have been unusually stressful through all of this. I give all the credit to the great team of employees, awesome community support, and all of our children’s families for our ability to stay open and be as successful as we have been.”

Another chance to apply for grant funds will soon be available

While the first grant application period is over, The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services will be offering a second opportunity to apply for stabilization grants. The second round of applications will be available in spring 2022, targeting those who did not apply during the first application window and potentially including an expanded list of eligible providers, according to the department.

“The responses from providers have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Children and Family Services Director Stephanie Beasley. “From the beginning, we worked for a speedy disbursement of funds and ease of use in applying to ensure providers do not face barriers in receiving the needed funds. I commend the work our staff at the Department of Health and Human Services has done to aid providers in staying open during the pandemic and their commitment to children and families of our child care providers.”

Support for child care providers is always available with Step Up to Quality. Not only does our team alert providers of opportunities like these, we also provide other benefits like professional development and training, a free one-on-one coach, child care subsidy reimbursement and incentive bonuses.



Farm to Preschool Builds Healthy Eating Habits for Nebraska’s Children

Healthful, nutritious food is important for everyone, especially young children. Eating habits start in infancy, and by the time children enter elementary school, those habits are fairly established. So, if we want our children to have lifelong healthy eating habits, early intervention and experience with healthy eating is an important part of their development.

Get connected with Farm to Preschool

The Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) understands the importance of establishing early, healthy habits, so they began to include Farm to Preschool (also referred to as Farm to Early Care and Education) in the work of Nutrition Services in 2015 as a way to provide information to child care centers and family child care homes about the value of doing this activity. Farm to Preschool is not a program that you enroll in — it’s a slate of opportunities that include local food procurement, experiential education and school garden activity that are implemented by centers to educate children on where their food comes from.

Farm to Preschool activities also support core principles of high-quality early childhood education, the same principles that Step Up to Quality promotes throughout each of its steps. Learning through play, interacting with children on their level and providing tactile educational opportunities can all happen with Farm to Preschool efforts.

The NDE now hosts a comprehensive webpage for Farm to Preschool, providing guidance for providers and families on purchasing local and in-season foods, ideas for educational activities and use of gardens, tools for how to get started, and fact sheets and reports on Farm to Preschool research specific to Nebraska. You can reach out to Marla Kurtenbach, a nutrition services program specialist at the NDE, at marla.kurtenbach@nebraska.gov with any questions about Farm to Preschool, too.

“This doesn’t have to be a huge, time-consuming thing,” said Marla. “Any action can support local food systems, and starting with our littlest eaters just makes sense.”

Getting involved with Farm to Preschool can be as simple as making a commitment to incorporate a local food once a month in the meals you serve to the children in your care. Once you get your footing, you can take it even further: Tour a farm or have a farmer or gardener visit your program, grow your own garden, prepare meals with children or purchase produce from farmers markets to taste test.

Purchasing locally grown food also allows the early childhood education field to support our local economy. When this food is in children’s meals and classroom curriculums, it supports Nebraska’s agriculture today and enables us to plant the seed of interest for a whole new generation of farmers and market gardeners. Check out the Nebraska Farm to Preschool toolkit to find where you can buy locally produced food and drinks.

Tips for incorporating new foods into home meals and child care settings

The earlier children are exposed to a variety of foods, the more likely they will continue these habits as they grow.

“When implementing changes to child nutrition program meal patterns or menus, consider that early child care eaters are still establishing their habits and tastes,” said Marla. “It can be a good strategy to implement changes first at the early child care level.”

Sometimes, children need multiple exposures to a food to be ready to try it, so don’t pressure them if they don’t develop an immediate interest. Mix new food in with other food that they already know and enjoy. For example, if you know they like a few certain vegetables, mix in one more new vegetable. You can also involve other things children are learning, like colors, into mealtime by using a variety of colorful produce. Nebraska Farm to Preschool provides sample menus for how local foods can be incorporated into meals.

If you choose to start a garden, whether it’s a big plot or a few potted plants, letting children be involved with its care can increase their willingness to try the healthy foods they helped grow.

Interested in other ways to boost quality?

If you’re not already enrolled, we’d love to have you join Step Up to Quality.  We serve all child care and early childhood education programs throughout Nebraska with support and resources that continuously improve the quality of care provided. Learn more about our program benefits.



Why You Should Pursue a Career in Early Childhood Education

The early years of a child’s life can have an incredible impact on their future. They’re not only learning colors, words, shapes and numbers — they’re learning how to interact with others, explore the world, and understand and express their own emotions. It’s a great responsibility to be an early childhood professional, but it’s also greatly rewarding.

“I know I’m making a difference, not only in a child’s very early years of life, but also a parent’s life,” said Jenny Fleming, a program specialist at the Nebraska Department of Education in the Office of Early Childhood. “As a parent, there is no greater feeling when going to work every day than knowing that my young child is being loved and cared for in a safe, nurturing, quality environment with someone who wants to see my child grow and be successful.”

Early childhood professionals work with young children (birth through age eight) and their families. They work in a variety of settings and may also be referred to as teachers, child care providers or interventionists. The profession requires skilled, experienced, educated and dedicated workers, and while it may be a field that is often pursued by women, any gender can excel and find fulfillment working with young children.

Early childhood career paths

A common misconception about the early childhood profession is that there are limited job options and few ways to advance a career. But once you obtain the skills to get started in the field, there are many different jobs to pursue both immediately and along your career path.

“Since graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I’ve had a variety of roles in the field,” Jenny said. “I’ve taught infants through preschoolers, worked as a home visitor/family support worker, special education paraprofessional, director and assistant director in early childhood programs, and now, I’m a program specialist.”

In her current role, Jenny coordinates trainings for the Environment Rating Scales and the CLASS, observation tools used by Step Up to Quality to assess the quality of early childhood programs. She also has the advantage of working with a talented team of observers who go out into programs and complete the observations, making sure the programs are ready for them. Since she had been a teacher earlier in her career, her path prepared her for this role. She can relate to the educators who are receiving observations and help ease their nerves.

Jen Burkey, a Step Up to Quality coach, has also had the pleasure of a winding career path that has fit her needs along the way, always with the constant of children’s education. After getting her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, she worked as a substitute teacher for first and third grade, as an evening lead teacher for a learning center, and upon chance, found her passion for early childhood.

“As I was home with my own son, I began helping friends during the day with their little ones,” Jen said. “It became clear to me that I loved the three to six age group. All of the hands-on play, trips to parks, zoo visits and walks were never a burden to me. I realized this was where I felt so appreciated, needed and successful. Many outside individuals commented on my patience and how it took a special person for that age. This was the light for me!”

After that point, Jen’s kids grew older and attended school full time. She was offered a position at a preschool, an opportunity to take a further step in her career with an age group that she loves and align with her kids’ schedules.

After many wonderful years at the preschool, Jen reflected on her priorities and decided to move forward with becoming a Step Up to Quality coach, allowing her to have a more flexible schedule to visit her grown kids and dad while slowing down and enjoying her personal life.

“I love the chance to support and partner with teachers, mentor people, engage with kids in the classroom, and help educators create classrooms where the students are the center of learning through play,” Jen said. “What was a gift or talent I had to become a teacher, I can now share through giving my time to others.”

Advancing in the early childhood field

Whether you’re considering getting started in the early childhood field or are unsure where to go next in your career, it’s important to reflect on your “why.”

“A colleague of mine often asks in trainings ‘what is your why?’” Jenny Fleming said. “Ask yourself, ‘Why did I choose to be in this field? Why do I stay? What makes me smile every day when I go to work?’ If your answer is the children, know you’re right where you should be! It’s okay to explore the opportunities within the field and talk with others. Just always remember to ask what your ‘why’ is.”

Everyone will feel stuck at some point in their career, whether it’s at the beginning or somewhere along the way. In these moments, look to others, whether they’re advisors, colleagues, friends in the field or someone you look up to. It’s okay to ask for advice, and they may point you in a direction you never considered. This is a field that requires continuous reflection and learning.

“There are so many early childhood initiatives and support fields. Instead of staying on the same track, you could become a part of a different initiative,” Jen Burkey said. “For example, instead of a classroom teacher, become a trainer, mentor or coach. Education will always be a field where there is a constant need everywhere. This is a chance to make a difference during important, formative years and use your creativity to reach so many.”



How to Strengthen Communication between Parents and Providers

Children often spend their day with teachers and child care providers just as much as their parents, which means intentional, open communication between parents and providers is an important aspect of quality care and successful outcomes. Providers are knowledgeable in early education and development, and parents are experts on their own child.

Whether you’re a parent looking for tips on forging that relationship, or a provider who wants to take their communication to the next level, we’re glad you’re here to learn more about strengthening communication in early childhood education settings.

Tips for parents to improve communication with providers

Here are a few ways to open new avenues of communication and bring more purpose to the ways you communicate with providers.

Let’s start with what’s happening now. If a teacher or provider has scheduled touchpoints with you to discuss how your child is doing, this is the time to have a conversation — which means you should come prepared with your own questions. It’s easy to forget to prepare for these touchpoints, especially when you’re not leading them. Consider asking questions like, “What is my child’s favorite activity? Are there any social issues I should know about? What can I do at home to help?”

Between these touchpoints, there can be other ways to check in with your child’s provider. A good starting point is asking them what their preferred method of communication is, like texting, scheduled phone calls or face-to-face interaction around pick-up or drop-off time.

Consider the nature of your conversation and how long it may take: Is it a quick hello or expression of gratitude? That may be appropriate for a short text or face-to-face chat. Is it a concern about your child? Schedule a sit-down or phone call. Teachers and providers really do want to communicate with parents, but their attention is first focused on the children in their care, so be respectful of their availability by asking ahead of time before broaching a topic that could take more than a few minutes to discuss.

If you’re a parent on the search for a new provider, we recommend using Step Up to Quality’s free Find a Provider tool. This online resource will help you find providers near you who are enrolled in Step Up to Quality — which means they’re committed to strengthening the quality of their practices and are held to our quality communication standards. Check out our visitation checklists that include conversation starters for infants, toddlers, preschool and school-age care settings, too!

Tips for providers to improve communication with parents

There are many ways to communicate with parents, which you can learn to improve in depth when you enroll in Step Up to Quality, but here are some thought starters.

Are you taking the time to check-in with individual parents about their child’s development? Newsletters, social posts and blog posts are great ways to showcase your center as a whole, but it takes regular one-on-one communication with parents to strengthen their trust in your care and success in their child’s development. Decide what frequency and form of communication works best for you and your children’s parents, like weekly text touchpoints, daily app updates and monthly phone calls.

How are you building positive relationships with parents? Inevitably, challenges will arise when caring for children. If a relationship is established prior to issues, it helps parents and providers face them as partners with a solutions-oriented mindset. Learn more from the nonprofit Zero to Three about ways to examine how you approach problems and communicate them to parents.

Improve communication practices and more with Step Up to Quality

We’re committed to improving early child care and education in Nebraska. Our coaches are ready to guide you on your journey to higher quality. Learn about the benefits of enrolling.



This is Quality

Every year, and every day, is about quality at Step Up to Quality. But in 2022, we’re going to be emphasizing quality in new ways.

The early childhood education field has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. However, child care providers have shown incredible resilience. People outside of the field now have a greater awareness of how essential child care is and how important high-quality early childhood education is for our youngest Nebraskans.

At the same time, we recognize that “quality” can be hard to define, especially for people like first-time parents. Even for experienced child care providers, new research and data is always being published, and the field itself is continuously improving.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be communicating what quality means to us. We’ll release new ways of connecting with our team, you’ll see the new ways that we’re reaching parents and growing awareness of Step Up to Quality, and you’ll learn of ways we’re improving our own processes. Throughout it all, we’ll be showing gratitude toward all the child care providers and early childhood education teachers who are participating in Step Up to Quality this year. These educators place a high priority on continuously improving the quality of their care, and they go above and beyond for Nebraska’s children every single day.

Above all, we’re here to ensure every child in Nebraska has the very best start in life. High-quality early care can make a tremendous difference in the future of our state, and we’re determined to make sure every child has access to it. Quality matters.



A Big Thank You for Early Childhood Professionals

As Nebraska’s quality rating and improvement system, Step Up to Quality has a mission to support and provide resources to those who are doing essential work in the early childhood education field. These benefits range from personal recommendations for improvement and financial incentives to something just as vital: gratitude and encouragement for our participating programs.

“Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I would like to extend a sincere, heartfelt thank you for the hard work of early childhood professionals, their selfless dedication and abundant love that they provide to the children and families they’re caring for,” said Lynne Cook, the coach specialist at Step Up to Quality. “They’re not babysitters. They’re professionals who have the incredible power and responsibility to prepare each child for their future success.”

Whether your program has been enrolled in Step Up to Quality for a while, is just starting out or is curious about what we do, we acknowledge and appreciate the hard work you’re doing. You’re building the foundation for people’s lives, which is already an important task, and the pandemic made it even more challenging. In addition to educating children and keeping them safe, their health became a bigger factor than ever. You have the courage to show up and be your best each and every day for your families — and we thank you for that.

Participating in Step Up to Quality is a continual source of encouragement

Gratitude and encouragement are ingrained in our coaching practices, too. Our intention is to be a partner in supporting and elevating programs. Providers have the option to be coached by an early childhood professional, who will guide and support them as they navigate the Step Up to Quality process. Coaches make sure that no one feels overwhelmed or isolated on their journey to even higher quality practices.

Our coaches respect what programs are aiming for, focusing on strengths while bringing to light some areas that may need a little attention or consideration. Our participating programs tell us over and over that this free coaching is one of the biggest benefits.

“Providers and teachers are educating the next generation, and we’re here to lift them up and encourage them to be the best they can be because that’s what we all want,” said Lauri Cimino, director of Step Up to Quality. “We want successful children and families, and that in turn will lead to successful communities.”

When programs decide to participate in Step Up to Quality, they’re also showing their families and community that they’re committed to going above and beyond to provide quality care and education for young children. We know this is a commitment that’s at the core of what providers do, and they’re already creating great experiences for children in their care. By being a part of Step Up to Quality, programs are formalizing and publicizing their efforts, and we even help amplify those efforts with our find a provider tool. Each participating program also has its own web page on our site.

The Step Up to Quality team and participating programs are a supportive network, and we’re here to uplift every early childhood professional, because every role in the lives of children is meaningful. Whether you’re a current participant or are thinking about enrolling, our team would love to help answer any questions you may have.



Tips and Tools for Teaching Children Emotional Skills

Children can experience a wide range of emotions throughout a single day, but they aren’t always able to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others. That’s why it’s important for children to learn emotional skills in early childhood education settings.

More broad emotions, like happiness and anger, are generally picked up by children on their own. In experiments, researchers have found that 5- to 6-year-old children can identify both happy and angry faces with very high levels of accuracy. At the same time, recognition of sad faces can take years longer, with kids as old as 10 misinterpreting sad facial expressions as fearful ones.

Understanding emotions plays a fundamental role in the development of children’s social competence, which is why Step Up to Quality includes supporting emotional development in our rating of early childhood education providers and offers access to coaching and resources to improve it.

Tools to Practice Emotions

 Labeling and talking about emotions is a good place to start in supporting children’s emotional skill development. In one study of emotion identification, researchers gave typically-developing elementary school students training in the identification and self-production of facial cues. After only six, half-hour sessions, children improved their ability to read emotions compared with controls. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience a deficit in facial emotion recognition, but practice has shown to improve their ability, too.

As part of our efforts to help early child care providers and educators recognize and improve quality, Step Up to Quality has developed our own set of emotion identification cards that you can download, print and utilize for free in the classroom or at home. There are two deck versions available: one with illustrated faces and one with blank faces. The blank faces deck presents the opportunity for children to draw in emotions as part of an activity.

Download the Card Decks

Illustrated Card DeckBlank Card DeckPrintable Instructions

How to Use Emotion Identification Cards

 While social skills develop all throughout life, they grow most rapidly between the ages of 0 and 5. These cards can start being incorporated into curriculum for children as young as 18 months. Here are a few activity recommendations for engaging different age groups.

For children ages 18 months to 3 years:

  • Hold the stack of cards face down and flip them over one at a time to name each emotion.
  • Show children a card at random, ask them to act out the face pictured, then name the emotion together.
  • Place multiple cards on a table. Name one of the emotions showing and ask children to identify which face you described.

For children ages 4 to 5 years:

  • Hold the cards fanned out and ask children to pick them one by one until they find the emotion that they are feeling at the moment.
  • Have children choose a card and talk about a time when they felt that way. What happened, and what was it like?
  • Choose a card, name the emotion and discuss what you could do if someone around you was feeling this way.
  • Print off the deck with blank faces for the children. Walk through the cards individually, talking about what each emotion looks like and what situations may cause it to be felt. Then let the children draw in the face of that emotion after each card is discussed.

Have other ideas for emotion identification games? Share it with the Step Up to Quality team, and we may feature your classroom on our social media!



How to Advance Early Childhood Education with Local, Fresh Foods

In quality early childhood education, food is an important component—from what children consume at snack time to learning about how it’s produced. Healthy eating habits start as early as infancy.

Our colleagues at the Farm to Preschool program, an initiative through the Nebraska Department of Education, work to connect early care and education settings to local food producers with the objectives of serving locally grown, healthy foods to young children, improving child nutrition and providing related educational opportunities.

We recently connected with Deb Buck, a family engagement supervisor and outreach coordinator at Educare, a provider that’s a part of Step Up to Quality in Lincoln, Nebraska, to learn more about how they’re incorporating gardening and produce into their curriculum.

How long has your center participated in this initiative?

We began in 2017, but I’ve been involved in Farm to Preschool for more than 30 years. Once I started working at Educare, I did some research and reached out to Community Crops, who at the time had a Farm to School program, to establish a garden. Our Family Engagement team really spearheaded this program.

Involvement in the initiative can span from casual to immersive. What all does Educare do?

When the Community Crops program ended, we sought a new collaboration with Nebraska Extension and Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln. Through them, we got three master gardeners that supported us in setting up the garden, coming multiple times over the first few weeks, then coming out once a week to work with our teachers.

We’ve also connected with the local Food Bank to send a box of produce to our families once a week for 12 weeks. Once that was established, we went back to Nebraska Extension and connected those partnerships to send along recipes with the produce boxes for parents to try out.

Why do you think this initiative is important, and what positive impacts have you seen?

It’s important for children to know where produce comes from and have that understanding. Also, a lot of our teachers will take children out to the garden if the child is having an off day. It’s practical, intentional work where children can care for something.

The children have really diversified what they’ll eat, too. We can grow kale and make chips or salad, which is not something they always get at home.

How does this program boost the quality of the care you provide?

In my view of quality early childhood education, children can’t learn everything in life in just a classroom. You can have a cartoon picture of a fruit, but it’s so much richer to be able to see, feel and taste it in the garden. They see the lifecycle of plants and learn how to nurture them.

Parents have had a really positive reaction to our efforts, and I do think it sets us apart from other centers. We had a spring garden workday, and one mom in particular who did not have access to personal transportation made sure her neighbor could get her and her child there to participate.

What would you say to other providers who are considering joining this program?

Do it! Don’t be afraid to fail. Start with potted herbs in your classroom for children to smell, touch and taste. There are all different ways to connect children to plants.

If you can, have children prepare a snack as a part of your program. Get fresh produce from a farmers market for them to wash and prepare. It makes them feel like they’re giving back to their classroom. There are easy ways to put produce in the hands of children without having a garden, but do try a garden, too!

The most important thing is getting in touch with plant care and fresh veggies and fruits.

What value do you see in being a part of Step Up To Quality?

I think that if we’re going to create a profession that supports professionals within it, we need to have an overarching program like this. It’s a measurable program that empowers providers to show they’re serious about quality care, and reaching certain steps can unlock even more employee benefits.


Ready to plan how your center can get involved with the Farm to Preschool program? Check out more recommendations for how to get started.

And if you haven’t enrolled in Step Up to Quality, we’d love to have you on board. We serve all child care and early childhood education programs throughout Nebraska with support and resources that continuously improve the quality of care provided. Learn more about our program benefits.



A Child Care Safety Checklist for Parents and Providers

If you’re reading this, odds are you care deeply about the safety of children as they learn, play and grow. Safety is also important to us at Step Up to Quality.

When it comes to creating a child-safe environment in early childhood education settings, some hazards are difficult to recognize until it’s too late. That’s why our team has put together a checklist for parents and providers, as a starting point for keeping children safe. There are undoubtably other safety considerations to make, depending on specific circumstances, environments, ages and other factors — this is not an exhaustive list.

This checklist is an overview for judging if a child care center or family child care home is meeting safety standards. If you’re a parent, use this checklist to analyze a potential child care provider. If you’re a provider, use these questions as a checklist to review your own classrooms and consider ways hazards can be avoided.

Play Safety

  • Are play areas clean and in good condition?
  • Are younger and older children securely separated during play?
  • Does the playground equipment have any protruding nuts or bolts? After periods of time, these can start to loosen.
  • Does the outdoor play area have a soft ground?
  • Are area rugs secured with rubber or tape to avoid slip hazards?
  • Are there blind spot areas in large rooms where a child may not be watched over carefully?
  • Are long, straight walking paths broken up so children aren’t tempted to run?
  • Is free-standing furniture or equipment robust enough for children to pull themselves up on it? Even larger children’s toys, like play kitchens, can fall on a child and hurt them if they climb on it.
  • Are toys an appropriate size for the age group using them? If toys can fit in an empty tissue tube, it can be a choking hazard for infants or toddlers.

Social Safety

  • Are children’s group sizes manageable for the amount of people on staff at any given time? Caregiver-to-child ratios should be at least 1:4 for infants and young toddlers, 1:6 for older toddlers and 1:10 for preschool-aged kids to decrease the likelihood of injuries or illness.
  • Are care and discipline policies transparent? If these are vague, or not officially stated at all, it can indicate a careless environment.
  • Have there been instances of physical conflict between children? How were these resolved? What plans are in place to avoid them in the future?
  • How are people allowed in the child care center/family child care home? Are there security measures in place to deter strangers from coming into contact with the children?
  • Has everyone in contact with children had a background check and criminal screening in accordance with Nebraska law?
  • What precautions are in place to keep kids safe from abuse?

Health Safety

  • Are safeguards in place to prevent accidental cross-contamination for children with allergy concerns?
  • How is food stored and labeled to ensure it’s kept fresh and received by the correct child?
  • Is staff trained in proper medication storage, handling and administration?
  • Are staff and children up to date on their immunizations?
  • Are cabinets locked, especially if they contain choking hazards, cleaning supplies or sharp objects?
  • Are facilities, toys and equipment washed and disinfected daily?
  • Are emergency plans for fires, extreme weather or other hazards updated and practiced regularly? When was a drill last practiced?

Your child, or your child care provider, may have unique safety needs that fall outside of this checklist. We encourage you to use this as a starting point, not a final checklist, in analyzing and improving children’s environments.



Meet the Step Up to Quality Team: Lauri Cimino

The Step Up to Quality team is an incredible resource for child care providers going through any of the five Steps — and they can also connect providers with other early childhood education resources. As a part of the State of Nebraska Department of Education’s Office of Early Childhood, the Step Up to Quality team works closely with its colleagues within the government and with partner agencies across the state.

To help providers get to know the people behind Step Up to Quality better, we’re featuring each of the team members and their role. Now that we’ve featured the whole team, it’s time we highlight Step Up to Quality’s Director, Lauri Cimino!

Collaborative Leadership

Lauri has been a part of Step Up to Quality since the launch of the program. She built a team of professionals with a variety of experiences, including many early childhood education specialties. Most of her team has been with Step Up to Quality since nearly the beginning, including back when the State of Nebraska conducted research on Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) from across the nation. Lauri leads with an inclusive and collaborative style – she and her team continue to help shape Step Up to Quality’s processes and structure.

She joined the Step Up to Quality endeavor because she’s seen the difference high-quality early childhood education makes from nearly every perspective: a mother, grandmother, teacher and child care center director and administrator. And now, for the seven years Step Up to Quality has been in existence in Nebraska, she’s seen the impact on a state-wide level.

“We are very close to celebrating the 600th provider who is participating in Step Up to Quality, a truly impressive achievement that will belong to everyone,” Lauri said.

Lauri’s team works with colleagues at the Department of Early Childhood, and with others in the overall Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, to ensure Step Up to Quality operates seamlessly within the State of Nebraska’s systems. And the team often collaborates with other state-wide initiatives and regional programs to ensure early childhood educators are given the best tools and resources possible to provide the highest quality care for Nebraska’s children.

“Step Up to Quality is part of a big movement to not only raise awareness about the importance of high-quality early childhood education in our state, but also give providers a pathway to continuously improve the quality of their care,” Lauri said.

Proving the Point

Lauri started her career in early childhood education as a teacher and special educator. She’s seen firsthand that high-quality child care sets the stage for a person’s life, from the children she taught to the experiences her own children had.

“Choosing a child care provider is one of the most important decisions parents will make,” she said.

Over the years, Lauri moved her way up to being a child care center director and then a regional manager for a national child care company, but she also has a soft spot for family child care homes, having done that work herself when her children were small.

“My daughter’s children have all gone to the same family child care provider, and she has become like family to us all,” Lauri said.

To Lauri and her team, every child matters. Every child deserves the best care possible.

“I’m so proud that since 2014, more than 33,000 children have been cared for by providers participating in Step Up to Quality. Our entire state benefits by giving children the best start in life,” she said.

The first several years of a person’s life are the most formative in terms of brain development. By providing young children with an optimum environment to grow and learn, research has proven that they’ll be more prepared for elementary school and have better emotional intelligence, among many other benefits.

Looking to the Future

After Step Up to Quality’s fifth anniversary, the team began to analyze their processes and requirements. They conducted thorough research including surveys, meetings with stakeholders and conversations with providers. Over the last two years, the team has been preparing to evolve the program in some strategic ways, based on all the feedback and industry best practices.

“Our guiding principle is ‘continuous quality improvement,’ and that applies to us as a team, too. We want to ensure Step Up to Quality is the best it can be for the providers who participate,” Lauri said.

Another factor impacting Step Up to Quality and child care providers continues to be the pandemic. More people than ever before are recognizing the importance of high-quality child care as a necessity, not a luxury.

“This has been a tough time for child care providers. It’s the most difficult set of circumstances that I’ve seen in my career,” she said. “We want them to know that we are here for them, and we support them as they continue to go above and beyond for the children in their care.”



The Search Engine That Could

We are thrilled to launch new features on our website — a comprehensive, seamless, user-friendly search function and insightful resources for parents looking for high quality early childhood education.

This search engine is deceptively powerful. Parents can easily narrow down their child care search by inputting a few preferences and quickly see the Step Up to Quality-rated providers that fit their needs.

Try it out! You’ll see that you can star your favorites, and the site will remember these favorite providers the next time you visit. You can add or delete providers from your favorites list as much as you need to with the star button.

It gets better.

Each Step Up to Quality-rated provider has their own web page now! The page lists accreditations and other helpful details for parents.

On these individual web pages, or even on our resources page, parents can access child age-specific checklists to help them during facility visits or throughout their child care search journey.

Providing these free resources to parents – and connecting them to quality child care providers – is something that is important to us. We want to support both parents and providers in helping care for Nebraska’s children in the best ways possible.

This is the search engine that could change lives!



500+ Providers Strong

We achieved a big milestone: more than 500 providers are now participating in Step Up to Quality!

“This achievement means that thousands of children in Nebraska are receiving the best possible care in their most formative years,” said Step Up to Quality Director Lauri Cimino.

We want to take a moment and thank all the providers across the state who made this possible. Through your hard work, dedication and commitment to the children in your care, you’re making one of the biggest differences in lives you could possibly make. We’re not exaggerating when we say  you’re setting the children in your care on a path to living their best lives. You’re making your communities better places to live, and you’re impacting the future of our state.

 

It’s a big deal, and it all starts with you.

Think about the thousands of children in our state who are receiving attentive care in a thoughtful environment that promotes learning through physical, social and emotional development. The first five years are the most formative of a person’s life, and these children – your children – are in the best possible place where they can build a strong foundation.

Providers, because of all your hard work and the extra effort you put forth, in five years when the babies in your care are entering kindergarten, they’ll be ready to learn. In another 13 years when they graduate from high school, they’ll be prepared for the next step. And in another few years, they’ll be giving back to their communities like you. Our state’s workforce, economy and future are in your capable hands – and we’re so grateful for your commitment to be the best you can be.

 

No matter where you are along the Step Up to Quality path, we want to give you all the high fives. You’re going the extra mile for your children every day, and it matters.

We’re celebrating you all month long and into February, too. Look out for special posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, and some special images you can share on your own channels, too.

We know this past year has been incredibly hard, so let’s celebrate all you’ve done. Your job is important, you are important, and we’re so glad you are here!