Bringing Classroom Learning Home in Early Childhood

Published on October 12, 2020 in


In our region, nearly half of families struggle to meet their basic needs, including child care. Now, finding affordable care and deciding on a provider is even more challenging.

Thankfully, Detroit families with young children can now check their eligibility and locate child care centers nearby using United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s new resource, Connect4Care Kids

Parents know the importance of early childhood education, but many are not ready to send their infants, toddlers and preschoolers to a center due to coronavirus (COVID-19). Child care providers understand this concern and have worked to offer a mix of services to meet families’ care and learning needs for their little ones.

But what does virtual learning look like for little learners? Will children really benefit? Is it worth parents’ time? These are some of the questions that parents and child care providers have grappled with in the unusual start to the 2020-2021 school year.

A commitment to helping parents

United Way for Southeastern Michigan has worked with community organizations and child care providers for years to improve the availability of affordable, high-quality care in our region. In partnership with the City of Detroit, the new service Connect4Care Kids focuses on helping Detroit parents navigate complex systems to find care that meets their needs, as well as subsidies to offset the costs.

That commitment has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

United Way partner Starfish Family Services and its partners operate more than a dozen child care centers in Detroit, offering Early Head Start, Head Start and the Great Start Readiness Program (GRSP) for children from birth to age 5. Jamee K. Blanksvard, education director at Starfish Family Services, leads the agency’s efforts to develop a virtual learning structure specific for young learners.

 “We started doing research on best practices for virtual learning with preschool,” Blanksvard said. “We also looked at online learning for kindergartens as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations.”

Starfish’s program mirrors what many local child care providers are considering in their virtual learning programs for young children.

Quality of interactions over quantity

“Our first consideration was actually to limit screen time, which is important for young children,” Blanksvard said. “The second was ensuring that minimal screen time still provided a high-quality interaction between the teacher, the parent and the child.”

At Starfish, parents—or a trusted adult—and children meet with their teachers and no more than three other students for 15 to 20 minutes each day. Teachers also have a 15-minute, one-on-one session with the parent and child once a week.  

Children are excited to learn

During the daily class Zoom, teachers lead the small group in an activity such as a read-aloud or movement. Teachers then introduce a simple daily project and talk to parents about what the child might learn during that activity. The goal is to bring a little classroom learning through play into the home.

“The daily project could be as simple as a reminder to talk to infants and toddlers throughout the day,” Blanksvard said. “This supports their language development.

“All families get a weekly Learning Kit that is based on the lesson plan for the coming week. It could include child-safety scissors and construction paper for a cutting activity or items to float in the bath for a sink-or-float project.”

While classes started only a couple of weeks ago, there is positive feedback.

“Children are excited to see their teachers, and our teachers are super excited to see the kids,” Blanksvard said.

Supporting the family’s needs—from technology to meals and community

Early Head Start, Head Start and GSPR not only support a young child’s growth and learning, but the programs also provide a number of supports to the whole family. That remains true through virtual learning.

“With the Learning Kits, our families pick up a meal box that has food for breakfast, lunch and a snack each day of the week.

“We have purchased tablets and laptops. If a parent is in need of technology, they can check it out like a lending library,” Blanksvard said. “We’re also supplying airtime (internet access) on the tablet.

“We continue to support children with special needs and their parents. We can offer some therapies virtually and work with the parents on daily learning opportunities.”

Connection is another benefit of the child care programs. 

“There’s a chance to connect with the other parents and children in the small groups. Parents can still support each other through this shared experience,” Blanksvard said. “That [sense of community] feels particularly valuable right now.”

Find the best fit for your child and family

“Parents want to be able to support their child with all the tools they can possibly have. Early Head Start, Start or GSPR give parents another tool in their toolbox to support their child’s learning,” Blanksvard said. “We are still here to support their child’s learning [at home].”

Parents can visit Connect4CareKids.org or text Kids to 42273 to search for child care locations, check if their child is eligible for programs that help with child care costs, and connect with programs that match their family’s needs. The process is quick and easy to start.