Step Up To Quality Stories

Step 5 Spotlight: Jennifer Baumann Talks Unstructured Play and Going Viral on TikTok  

We recently chatted with Jennifer Baumann, a Step 5 provider and TikTok extraordinaire, to learn more about her Step Up to Quality journey and how she uses social media to connect with other parents and providers.

How did you decide you wanted to be a child care provider?

It was totally a necessity. I was a mom of three and needed to figure out how to make an income.  I was asked to help a friend when her daycare provider had to close and realized I could do it full-time. I decided to get my own home licensed, which led to my CDA, national accreditation and eventually to Step Up to Quality. I love the challenge of always searching for ways to improve quality and offer more to my families. I strive to be a high-quality early childhood program that teaches children to think creatively so they succeed in a complex and ever-changing world.

How long have you been running Little Angel Playschool?

We just celebrated 23 years of service! I originally licensed my home as a Family Child Care Home 1 (FCCH 1) in 1999. In 2003, I purchased the house next door to expand our program to a FCCH II. It’s been wonderful. Having my own space for our program allows me to do so much more than when we shared space in my personal home. This year, I hired a co-teacher, Kasey Wild, to work with me full-time. She has been a great addition, allowing us to keep our ratios lower, have more personal connections with the children and offer even more to the littles in our program.

What is your child care philosophy?

This is a tough one, and there are so many buzzwords out there. I am, what one would call, a play-based and child-led program. Some people think that only means free play, but there’s so much more that goes into this program.

I love allowing the children to engage in the “third teacher,” which is the environment. I observe the littles playing, I see what they’re interested in and what level they’re at for their milestones, and I add things to the environment so that they can explore and discover it on their own during their child-led playtime. They’re playing to learn, and they’re learning to play. We do not do what a lot of people consider “preschool.” We don’t do activities that involve flashcards, worksheets or rote learning. Instead, we work to create a social-emotional foundation.

I recently started reading “Illuminating Care: The Pedagogy and Practice of Care in Early Childhood Communities” by Carole Garboden Murray, and I’m head over heels. It’s about looking at care as early childhood education — period. It takes those routines and adds things to them so that they become a magical way to create connections and relationships, helping children build their independence and self-esteem. I’m constantly absorbing more training and looking for what’s next.

How did you learn about Step Up to Quality? What convinced you to join?

There was no convincing needed. I can’t remember if I was part of the pilot program or had just heard through board members of the Nebraska Family Child Care Association, but I was one of the first providers in our area to join. At the time, I was a member of Sixpence, an Infant Toddler Initiative here in the Panhandle, and one of the goals was undertaking Step Up to Quality. It was already on my radar, but it was nice to be a part of an agency that helped fund the implementation of some of these standards. 

How does it feel to have achieved the Step 5 level?

It feels so good to reach this level. I was elated, and I didn’t think it was possible. As a family child care home, I feel we have an advantage over centers. I was the only person who needed to worry about getting trained and applying my training, unlike a center that may have staff turnover.

I liked that the process was kind of “a la carte.” If you believe in something or don’t believe in something, you can go in that direction. You don’t lose points; you just don’t earn certain points. I’m a big believer in outdoor and risky play and am currently in the process of getting the Nature Explore certification for my outdoor classroom. A part of that is having some risky or messy play, which doesn’t always fall in line with health and quality standards for Step Up to Quality. But I chose to go this route, so I made up my points in other categories.

In what ways has Step Up to Quality helped boost the quality of your child care practices? What have you learned and implemented?

A piece of Step Up to Quality is getting trained in an approved curriculum. I chose the creative curriculum, and when we were going through the training, it finally clicked — it’s about the everyday stuff and enhancing those moments to include academic concepts. Care is education.

When you have the observation piece of Step Up to Quality, they come into your program for three or four hours, and you’re expected to hit a certain number of categories. You may wonder, “How am I supposed to do all that happens in a day in this short timeframe?” But it can be done when it’s implemented into the routines of your program.

We don’t do literacy, we do pre-literacy, so we do things like singing during diaper changing time. Pre-science can be talking about body parts. Pre-math can be about walking down the stairs and counting the steps. It’s about being intentional in those everyday routines instead of a specific activity — care is the curriculum.

Do you feel like being a part of Step Up to Quality has been a helpful marketing tool?

Absolutely. Any time you’re involved with an agency that shares the importance of quality and how foundational you are to your communities and the economy, it gives credibility. So, it just gives you that extra confidence to put yourself out there.

Why do you think you have such a large following on TikTok? How do you come up with ideas for videos?

My adult children tormented me when I tried to start TikTok. I said, “I’m going to show you, I’m going to figure this out.” An online provider friend of mine told me to just start, and that’s what I tell people — just start. Post whatever and be true to you. I had one video go viral last year. I had put in my Amazon wish list that I was looking for a doggy window for my fence, and one of my followers sent it to me. My husband installed it on the fence so my children could see the trash truck driver. The video got 9 million views, and I gained thousands of followers over the weekend. From there, my followers slowly kept building.

TikTok keeps me motivated to constantly share the platform of learning through play. I don’t do anything special for my posts, I just share what we’re doing every day. Our day is the content, and I try to share that it’s inexpensive and easy to have children learn through play. Other than that, if someone asks about something in the comments of a post, we’ll make a video about it. I just look at it as a conversation with a community that wants to learn about the importance of play.

It’s interesting to see the connections that you make on the platform. I had someone recognize me at a national conference, and I was there to see someone who I also knew through the internet!

What advice do you have for other providers who want to use social media as a tool to promote their care?

Just do it. We all start off as novices and don’t know what we’re doing, and I don’t know what I’m doing to this day. I just try to be honest and share what I believe in, and sometimes you actually learn how to do things better because someone will share what they’ve done or how they’ve improved what you’re doing. Put yourself out there and use it as a sounding board.

Sometimes providers will market their program with photos or videos that are “cute.” That’s all good and well, and our programs are adorable, but we need to share what the substance is — what they’re learning, how they’re learning and what your intentions are. There’s more to it than play, they’re learning through play.

What words of encouragement do you have for providers who are considering joining Step Up to Quality or are still working through the steps?

Just start! If you have questions, get online. In Nebraska, we have a lot of online pages and local and state associations. Child care should be about community and collaboration, not competition. We’re all in it for the betterment of children, and that makes our communities better, our businesses better and helps everyone in the long run.

If we can all work with one another, we can build so much more. A few of the gals in our community text each other daily with issues and venting and trying to figure out various things. We’re all coworkers, not competitors. I encourage everyone to reach out to other providers in their community.

If you’re still working through the Step Up to Quality steps, the fact that you even signed up to get going is great. Everything you do leads to something else, and you are constantly becoming a better provider. That’s your competition — striving to be a better you than the day before — and the children in your community benefit along the way!