by Marilyn Moore
I remember a conversation several years ago when I was asked by a community leader what change we could make in public education that would have the biggest impact on student success. My answer then, and my answer today, is to invest in quality childcare and preschool for every child from birth to five in the community.
The person asking the question seemed surprised, because most people don’t think about children as “school children” until they start kindergarten at age five or six. And that’s true, in Nebraska and throughout the United States.
While there are a few groups of young children for whom public schools have both responsibility and funding, it’s very few, generally including those children with moderate to severe disabilities and those children with other factors that may impede their success in school when they enter kindergarten, factors like extreme poverty, low birth weight, and living in a home where English is not spoken. Even for those children, the school program may not be all-day, and it certainly isn’t all year.
But the fact of the matter is, all children, from birth on, need daily, consistent, high quality, childcare. In some homes, that’s provided by a stay-at-home parent. But that’s not the case in most homes; in Lincoln, about 77% of children under the age of five live in a home where all parents are in the workforce so childcare is a must. And that became even more evident during the past three years of the pandemic, when public schools closed and childcare providers struggled to stay open, and many parents were trying to work from home while also caring for their children.
Some in the community see childcare as a necessity for employment; I agree, it is. But first and foremost, I see quality childcare and preschool as essential for the children themselves.
During those first five years, children grow in every possible way…physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally. Their bodies grow, their brains grow, the neural pathways in their brains practically explode with new connections. They learn to talk, they learn to respond, they learn to love, they learn to assert themselves, they learn to get along with others.
It’s a time of growth unlike any other they will experience. And it happens in a space that encourages them to play, to move, to explore, to draw and paint and create, to listen to stories and make up their own stories, and to talk with adults. It doesn’t happen in front of screens.
Because most parents in Lincoln are working, quality childcare is an essential, for the family’s livelihood, and for the child’s development. Quality childcare is expensive; in fact, childcare for an infant can be more expensive than a year in public college. And it’s solely up to parents to figure out how to manage it.
There are many quality childcare providers in Lincoln; but the community’s need for childcare exceeds what the current marketplace can offer. There are waiting lists for many of those providers. And there’s not much support for parents to navigate the major issues of finding a childcare provider that works for them and figuring out how to pay for it. It’s not like kindergarten, where every neighborhood has an elementary school, and a guarantee that every child who lives in that attendance area will have a place in the classroom.
So, a critical need, and not much support for parents in filling that need. Except, of course, in Lincoln, where we have Lincoln Littles, an organization whose mission includes just that, helping parents with information about available childcare, close to home, or close to work, or convenient in some other way.
And as for cost, Lincoln Littles administers a tuition assistance fund that provides support to families struggling with the cost of college for an infant. These funds for working families are either granted or donated, donated by organizations and members of this community, those who recognize that supporting young children and their parents as they are just getting started as a family is the best investment a community can make. I support Lincoln Littles, and I hope you will, too.