The last few years have seen increased national conversation about how to reform education in our country. Charter schools are popping up everywhere, new forms of high school are being created, and new ways of “doing school” are being funded and debated. But throughout all this conversation very little attention has been paid to early childhood education—our work is still considered “day care” by many and not valued for the very important role it plays in the overall landscape of a child’s education. We want to change that conversation.

I think that this “day care” conversation has been fueled in part by two subtle and underlying ideas we have in this country– first, that what happens in early childhood settings is really comparable to what happens at home during the early years, and second, that what happens with children before they are “school age” is a personal responsibility rather than a collective responsibility. Perhaps because many children used to (and still do) spend their first five years at home with a parent or family member, we seem to have the idea that what happens in early childhood settings is the same thing as what happens at home during the day and that these teachers are “substitute parents”  who don’t really need any special skills, rather than educators requiring degrees (after all, you don’t need a degree to be a parent….). In addition, we see educating children starting in Kindergarten as something we need to be doing (even though it’s debatable that we really do see this as a collective responsibility since our education system is certainly not yet equitable) but educating a child before five years of age is something an individual parent is responsible for finding and financing.

The work that happens in our classrooms, and in many other early childhood classrooms across the country, certainly includes care and love, but it includes so much more than that. Teachers in these settings carefully design developmentally appropriate experiences for children that help them develop skills and dispositions that will carry them through a lifetime of learning. Teachers in these settings expertly manage multiple children all day long…teaching them vital life skills, social interaction skills, and rich content—all while caring for them in ways that build strong personal relationships with them that can last a lifetime. We do not care for days…we care for children. But we do so much more than just care for them. We are living and learning spaces that grow human beings…the next generation of people who will run this country. Parents who have chosen to stay home with their young child and nannies working in homes often face the same lack of respect from society. They are not “just taking care of” their child, they, too, are growing human beings. There is no more important job than growing a human being.

While the phrase “day care” certainly doesn’t adequately describe our work, the word “school” is laden with context that makes it not quite the right word for our work either. School often conjures up thoughts of testing and sitting at desks and that is not at all what we do. But we do educate children and the technical definition of “school” is “an institution for educating children”–a description that certainly applies to our work. At SEEC we describe ourselves as a demonstration school for young children because developing new methods of educating young children is the heart of our work, using the research on child development and learning is our base, and sharing our learning with others in the field is part of our mission. We are not a “day care” center and neither are most of our colleagues doing this work across the country. We are school at its’ richest and best.

I am certainly not denying that there are some places where young children spend their days which are simply places where they are taken care of at the most basic level—these places definitely exist. But I am saying that as a country we should no longer be content to let places like this exist. We should demand that the system change to support and allow every child who is in a group setting to have the chance to experience a rich living and learning environment that we absolutely know is key to learning later in life and to being successful in life overall. This change will require conversations like the ones that have happened around the rest of the education system—what are the new models, how will we fund these models, and who can (and can’t) teach. Perhaps most importantly, this change will require the conversation about what we want for the children of this country collectively, not just what we want for our own child.

Let’s help start this conversation. Let’s all–teachers, parents, nannies, anyone working with young children– start a campaign that brings to light the important work that people who are growing human beings are doing. Let’s post our photos of the rich work we do with young children with the hashtag #notdaycare. Let’s add our voices to the conversation in an effort to change the narrative about the early years and education. Let’s help the public understand that the best way to change the education system might be to change the early childhood system so we are sending children to school at 5 as children who are curious, who love learning, and who know how to ask good questions and search for answers. Our work is #notdaycare, it is education that sets the stage for our future. Let’s have the conversation.

What happened to Kindergarten?

When I went to Kindergarten it was the place where I learned about being in school. Nobody expected me to be reading by the time the year was over. I had music and art and recess. It was a gentle transition into school and one that made me love learning and be excited to go to school, a feeling that is still with me to this very day.

Sadly, the same is not true for many children today. For them, Kindergarten is a place of high stress and pressure. Stories and questions have been replaced with worksheets and testing. Rugs and shared round tables have been replaced by individual desks. But none of this is true in our Kindergarten at SEEC. Sure, our morning is spent learning math and reading but not in a high pressure, “you have to learn this by the end of the year” way. Instead, it is done in large circles on a rug with conversation, at shared tables with the children discussing what they are learning, and in ways that introduce concepts connected to things the children care deeply about. In the afternoon they head out on their daily trip to the museums of the Smithsonian to more deeply explore some of their ideas, to ask questions and search for answers, and to learn to look carefully at the world around them.

Let me give you and example of how this works. During the fall months our Kindergarten teachers noticed the children had a strong interest in Star Wars. For months they used that interest to teach everything from reading to appropriate behavior, from marketing strategies to the elements of a fiction story. Some of the activities that happened during these months included the following…

The classroom made connections between the women of Star Wars and the First Ladies of our country, exploring everything from their clothing to their characteristics. They explored the First Ladies exhibit in the National Museum of American History and through careful looking noticed that Michelle Obama’s dress looked very similar to the dress worn by Princess Leia!


They talked about Luke Skywalker and then visited the National Portrait Gallery to look at a painting of William Campbell, a fighter pilot who flew more than 100 missions across three different wars. They talked about the characteristics of a hero and what makes a person brave and what courage looks like.


They learned math and compared their own heights to the height of C3PO, learning to measure and compare.



They learned about the elements found in fiction stories as they explored the Star Wars story.


And, of course, there was a lot of learning about space and the stars!

At SEEC we also believe that art and music are vital parts of the curriculum and we have playground time every day. We have a Spanish teacher who comes several times each week and a researcher from the Smithsonian who comes to teach science as well. All of this is done in ways that are engaging and fun—no high pressure, no testing. But there is a lot of conversation, a lot of questions being asked by both the teachers and the children, and a lot of curiosity. Do our children learn to read by the end of the year? Those of them who are ready to read absolutely do, the rest leave us with the skills they need to make that leap in first grade. Do they do well when they leave us for “regular” school? Absolutely. The biggest concern we hear from parents is that when their child gets to their new school they get in trouble for asking so many questions. If that’s the biggest issue that comes up we’ll take it because ultimately the best learning comes from asking questions. So we will keep encouraging questions, helping children learn to look at the world around them carefully and with great curiosity and allowing them to explore their own ideas and search for their own answers to things that interest them.  Because we believe that is what Kindergarten should be– a gentle transition into school that leaves you hungry to learn more.




Connecting Through Play

We often talk about play as it relates to learning, something that is certainly important for all ages. But there is a “softer” side to play that I think we sometimes forget about. Children form friendships through their play. Adults build some of their best connections and memories through play. Play binds us together. Play binds us across generations.

My children are now 31 and 26 but there are toys that I see in the stores and immediately I am taken back to their childhood. I am taken back to hours of building with Legos, days filled with building forts with chairs and blankets and filling them with baby dolls and Matchbox cars, and to playing games lying on our stomachs in the living room. I am taken back to playing Teenage Mutant Turtles with my son, Clint, and Barbie in the backyard with my daughter, Karlyn. Some of my best memories of my children’s growing up years are associated with play.

This year I was so excited when I found a set of building toys to buy for my granddaughter, Kayla, for Christmas (don’t worry, she is only three and won’t be reading this!). This set of big building materials is almost like a set my kids had when they were little. They literally spent hours together building things like houses with this building set. But my son particularly loved this set so when I found this new set I knew it was perfect to send to his daughter for Christmas. As a child he not only built houses with his sister, but he built cars for them to “drive” around the neighborhood and an airplane that he was determined to test out by jumping off the roof of our house.  I don’t know who will be more excited when she opens the gift—him or my granddaughter (which is why the tag is addressed to both of them!)


Toys and play can also be nostalgic, taking us back to our own childhoods and connecting us across generations. I also bought Kayla an Etch-A-Sketch this year, a toy that I adored as a kid and that both of my kids played with for hours. And sometimes the connections goes not only across generations but across a family. At Thanksgiving this year my mom gave my sister, Shari, and I the game Mystery Date. We were immediately children again, opening the game and lying on the floor to play together. But I also had to text my cousin, Pam, and my daughter to let them know that we now had the game to play at our 2016 girls weekend at the beach! My cousins, my sister and I spent hours playing this game during summers spent at our grandparents’ farm and I am so excited to bring my daughter into the world of Mystery Date because I know that we will create great memories playing it together.

There is no doubt that play is an important tool for learning but its’ role in building connections and memories may be just as important. It is in these connections that we find meaning for our lives.

History Isn’t Just for Adults!

When people think of history museums they often think of places that are geared toward adults and older children but that absolutely does not have to be the case! Young children are fascinated by objects, and spaces that are designed with young children in mind can become big pretend play opportunities that bring history to life for them! On December 9th the National Museum of American History (NMAH) will open Wegmans Wonderplace, a space designed for the museum’s youngest visitors– children under 6 years of age. I was fortunate enough to be part of the amazing team that designed this space and I am here to tell you that it breaks new ground for early childhood and history museums! The space combines developmentally appropriate play opportunities that mirror some of the exhibitions found around the NMAH, with real objects from their collection displayed in ways that are both accessible to children and interesting to adults. A mini Julia Child’s kitchen is reminiscent of the one found in the museum. An interactive wall of portraits allows children to carefully look at pictures of other people while putting themselves in the picture.

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There is a space for babies not yet walking and an area for building with different types of blocks that features a sensory wall of building materials for little ones to touch. But the central feature is a large tugboat climbing structure with a clock tower that mimics the Smithsonian castle!



All of these play experiences do much more than give children a place to play—they introduce children to the world of museums at the same time. Each area has real objects placed at the children’s levels to allow them to explore them not only from the front, but from the back, from underneath, and from over the top of them! Signage that hangs in each area will help parents know what their infant, their toddler and their preschooler are each getting from the experience.




Museums can provide young children and their families with rich learning experiences from the very beginning. For babies, there is a kaleidoscope of color and objects to catch their eyes and the opportunity for adults to name objects and characteristics of objects, exposing their babies to language that is rich and deep. Toddlers can be directed to look carefully at objects—to find the eyes on the Kermit puppet, to look for the wheels on the train, or to count the pans in the kitchen. Preschoolers can go deeper – sharing what they see, what they think about what they see, and what questions they have about what they see. And places like the new Wegmans Wonderplace introduce families to the idea of coming to the museum in ways that are gentle and non-threatening. This early introduction can lead to a lifelong love of museums and to seeing museums as a place to search for information in ways that are fun and interactive—even when there are a lot of things behind cases.

If you are in the DC area and have a young child please come visit Wegmans Wonderplace and share in their delight and curiosity as they explore. Afterwards go visit one piece of the larger museum and watch what your child does as you guide their explorations! You will be developing a sense of curiosity, a love for learning and a connection to the world around them. As the sign hanging in the entrance to Wegmans Wonderplace states—“Knowledge begins with Wonder.”


How Toddlers “Do” Friendship

i spent ten years as a tenured faculty member at The Ohio State University and one of my lines of research was how toddlers, children between 18 months and 3 years of age, make friends, keep friends, and interact with their friends. What I discovered doing that research was both surprising and heartwarming. I found that not only do toddlers form very close friendships, but they maintain these friendships over time, and interact with their friends in ways that are very different from the way they interact with other children who are not friends. We have long known that friendships play an important role in the lives of adults and teens, but only recently have we come to see that even the youngest children can form strong friendships that have as much meaning to them as ours do for us. The following are a few of the things I discovered while doing that research and that teachers and parents of young children should keep in mind.

  • Toddlers need time to form friendships
    • While you may meet a person and know pretty quickly that you will be friends, toddlers need time to form their friendships. This means that they need to have many opportunities to interact with the same children to really get to know them. Further, they need unstructured time to play together. This also means that it may be more difficult for a child who attends a program part time to form strong friendships at early ages. If your child is not in an early childhood setting going someplace like a museum on a regular day of the week with another group of parents/caregivers can help your child begin to form friendships.


  • Toddlers choose their own friends
    • Time with others by itself will not automatically lead to a friendship for toddlers. Just because you and your best adult friend get your toddlers together to play every day does not mean that they will become friends too. In my research toddlers chose their friends the same way you do–through shared interests during play and personal qualities that appealed to them. While adults can certainly encourage a friendship you can’t force children to be friends.
  • Toddlers demonstrate their friendship by imitating each other
    • Of all the things I discovered in my research this was perhaps the most surprising and exciting! Toddler friends imitated each other in play, with one friend performing a behavior and the other doing the same or a very similar behavior immediately after. In addition, friends signaled their relationship by using identical objects. For example, if one of the friends had a blue ball in her right hand the other friend in the pair would have (or find) one as well—same ball, same hand! Up until this point I had always seen imitation as just copying each other—it was not until I watched hours of video very carefully that I saw that imitating each other was the signal for friendship. This should not have been surprising, after all, we choose our friends because we have something in common with them—an advanced form of imitation. But toddlers can’t look at their peers and thing “Hey! We both like Cheerios, let’s be friend!” so they create similarity through imitation.


  • Toddlers miss their friends when they are gone
    • Common wisdom suggests that when a toddler’s friend moves away he simply forgets about the friend and moves on, but my research, and our experiences here at SEEC, suggest something very different. Years of careful observation of toddler friends showed that they actually went through a grieving process when a friend moved to another town or just to another classroom in an early childhood setting.We observed behaviors such as regression back to diapers, changes in behavior in the classroom and at home, and a general sadness when a friend left. At SEEC we have seen several children leave our school to move to other states or even other countries and we know that our children here still talk about those children and those children still talk about their SEEC friends. We even have children Skype with their old friends once they have moved!
  • Toddlers vary in how they interact with others
    • While some toddlers are outgoing and make friends easily, others are more quiet and tend to need to watch others before they make a friend. Parents and teachers often worry if a child is shy and hangs back, but our research found that these children were just as likely to make friends, they just made them more slowly and more deliberately. Once they were ready the children who hung back and watched often formed their friendships more quickly as they had watched the other children and knew exactly how and what to imitate to get into the action!
  • Toddler friendships should be respected and honored
    • Perhaps the most important lesson I learned through this research was that toddler friendships deserve the same amount of attention and respect that the friendships of older children and adults get. A toddler’s friends are just as important to him as your friends are to you and they deserve the same amount of care. Let friends sit together in the classroom, let them make choices to play on their own, and honor the emotional connection that they have.


Regardless of your age, friends are an important part of life. Encourage and support children as they make friends and talk to them about what it means to be a good friend from the earliest ages. These are the lessons that will last a lifetime and that will make for a happy and fulfilling life.

Why Should We Care About the Arts? (or Let’s Create “Both/And” Schools)

I have been thinking about education–both in early childhood and beyond, both in school and out of school–for most of my career. Most recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are, and are not, teaching in early childhood school settings and beyond.

It seems that we live in what I call an “either/or” world of education. Phonics or whole language? STEM or STEAM? Project-based or scripted curriculum? We sway back and forth from year to year on what we are focused on and what we believe is important. At the moment the arts (and sometimes the humanities) often seem to be getting lost in the shuffle. They aren’t part of the common core of what we have decided children need to learn in school. They are often viewed as things that children should pursue out of school, in private lessons, or on their own time. But what if we stopped the “either /or” conversations and started to talk more about how we can create “both/and” schools for children of all ages and all socioeconomic levels?

I spent the morning at the White House today talking about the importance of the arts and listening to youth tell their stories–stories of how writing gave them someone to talk to when nobody seemed to care, how poetry kept them from a life of incarcerations, how dance awakened a passion that they didn’t know they had. Don’t get me wrong, I love STEM—I used to be the COO of a large science museum– and I absolutely believe in the importance of providing a strong STEM curriculum to all children, in all schools. But I don’t think it should come at the expense of the arts. While it is important to have children memorize the times tables, it may be just as important to give them the opportunity to memorize lines for a play. While it is important to learn the composition of the solar system, it is just as important to learn the composition of a great piece of art. While it is vital to learn to decode the letters and words on a piece of paper, it may be just as important to learn to look carefully at a piece of art, a sculpture, or an artifact from history and decode its’ story.

Education should create a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime. For some, STEM evokes that passion. But for others there is a human passion awakened only though the arts, a passion that we often forget about in education. And many of us love, and need, both in our lives. I write to work through things that I am struggling with, but I also love the beauty and concreteness of doing math. I am fascinated by the stories of science, but I want to be exposed to the stories of the great artists as well. Good writing touches me in a way that is different from the way solving a tough math problem does. I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David for the first time because the absolute beauty of it moved me in a way that is different from the way the beauty of the solar system moves me. Other people have the exact opposite reactions to these very same things and that is exactly my point—we need education systems that support and nurture both/and. These kinds of schools will have a much higher possibility of engaging all children, not just some.

Perhaps the arts are often ignored because they are not seen to be something that teaches “content” that will make you successful in life. But the arts teach you communication when you try to write your thoughts so someone else can connect to them. They teach you perspective taking when you create a painting to look like reality or when you imagine what the artist was thinking. They teach you to take on a challenge as you write and rewrite, create and recreate, or practice a dance until you get it right. They teach you focus and self-control as you work to complete something you started and care deeply about finishing. Perhaps most importantly, they can be the thing that best encourages self-directed and engaged learning for those children who are not engaged by the more traditional “school subjects”. Better yet, what if the arts can be used to engage children in these more traditional subjects?

At SEEC last year our four-year-olds learned about light, invisibility and the electromagnetic spectrum while exploring the adventures of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Another class explored concepts of gravity and its effects on your muscles at the Hirshhorn museum using a piece by artist Ernesto Neto titled, The Dangerous Logic of Wooing and old panty hose full of rice.


A class of our three-year-olds talked about inventing while studying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the artists they were named after. When they studied the turtle “Leo”, they studied the artist Leonardo da Vinci and visited the National Air and Space Museum to see da Vinci’s Flying Man, followed by the students coming up with their own inventions using blocks, magnet tiles and other materials from their classroom. A class of two-year-olds began and ended a six week study of bugs by visiting Louise Bourgeois’  Maman spider sculpture at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, as well as by examining real collections of various bugs from the National Museum of Natural History’s collection.

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Our weekend workshops for preschool children and their families studied the movement of the sun by looking at the sun and the sky on their walk to the National Gallery where they then looked carefully at Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade and Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade, Sunlight to see the difference in the sun and the light on the landscape.

We clearly take a “both/and” approach here at SEEC and we believe our children are better for it. I hope that our conversations around education in this country can move in this direction so we can engage more children, more often and in more ways. After all, isn’t that the point?

Life Lessons from Two-Year-Olds

I spend a lot of time listening to two year olds since my office at SEEC is across the hall from the two year old classrooms. Two year olds are incredibly cool human beings. They are honest, yet loving; assertive, yet shy; funny, yet serious. I have always said that the year between two and three is one of my favorite years of child development because you have a rare and fleeting view into the mind of your child– they can tell you what they are thinking but they have not yet started to censor what they are saying. I think that there are a lot of life lessons we adults can learn from two year olds. Here are some of those lessons…

  • Use all your energy to engage in things that you are interested in doing. Two year olds go and go and go, seemingly nonstop, but it’s all about doing what they are interested in. We all say that we wish we had the kind of energy two year olds have…maybe we would all have this kind of energy if we spent more time doing things we like.
  • When you are done, be done. While two year olds go and go, when they are done they are done. When they are done with the Playdoh there is no convincing them otherwise. When they are done playing cars they move on. Have you ever watched a tired two year old fall asleep? One minute they are wide awake and the next…sound asleep. No tossing and turning and worrying there. Be done with it and move on.
  • Eat a little bit all day long. Nutritionists tell us that this idea of grazing is the right way to eat but do we do it? No! We sit and eat three (often huge) meals every day. Two year olds, when left alone, prefer to graze on small meals all day long. It is so much healthier.
  • Hold someone’s hand and get their attention when you want to tell or show them something really important. I love how two year olds come take my hand or put their tiny hands on my face to be sure I am looking right at them when they have something important to tell or show me. Too often we talk at people rather than with them.  Get people’s attention when you want to talk to them and give them your attention when they talk to you.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a great facial expression. Two year olds are experts at funny faces. They break the tension, communicate their feelings and make people laugh. If only more of us did that the world would be a better place.
  • Make sure people clap for you when you do something cool. I love how two year olds do something and then look to you to clap for them as soon as they stop. Everyone needs to be acknowledged for doing something cool. We should do it for each other more often.
  • Ask “What’s this?” and “Why?” a lot. It makes things more clear and helps everyone know what is really going on. You should also ask “Why not?” a lot as you get older. It opens new doors and new ways of thinking.
  • Feel proud of yourself in pictures. As adults we often resist getting our pictures taken and worry about how we look when they are taken. Two year olds delight in getting their pictures taken and insist on seeing them over and over regardless of how they look. They just love to see themselves. No image problems here.
  • Move around often rather than sitting still for hours. It makes you healthier and keeps you slim. Two year olds have it right. It also makes you tired so you sleep better. Not a bad deal.
  • Let people know when you are not happy. It is so much healthier than keeping your feelings all bottled up inside. Two year olds are masters at letting you know when they are not happy, but they don’t hold a grudge either. We could learn from both of these behaviors.
  • Try something new often. Two year olds often don’t think twice about trying something new, especially if you don’t make a big deal about it being new. Two year olds know how to “live juicy”…not a bad way to live your life.
  • Give hugs and kisses. Lots of them. Every day. To lots of people. Say “I love you” often.

If you have not spent any time with a two year old lately I strongly suggest you find one (the adorable one below is my granddaughter!). It will put your life in perspective and make you appreciate the small things that truly make up a life. It is definitely making my life better.


It’s a bittersweet time of year…..

By Kim Kiehl, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center

All across the country it is a bittersweet time of year…back to school time. This time of year inevitably brings transition. It doesn’t matter if you are bringing your child to a new classroom here at SEEC, sending your child off to Kindergarten, or sending him off to college, the rituals and the feelings are the same. Transitions are tough. Transitions mean change. Transitions bring emotions. As I watch the start of the new school year here at SEEC I often wonder who the transition is more difficult for…the parents or the children. Sure, the children are crying and calling for mommy and daddy as they move to a new room with new friends. But I promise you that the crying stops soon after you leave as they become involved in the wonder of learning and the excitement of first friends. But for us parents that feeling often lingers over our morning coffee, into that first meeting of the day and through that long team meeting after lunch. While my own children are adults, now 30 and 26, as I watch parents as they drop off here at SEEC I can still feel that pull of leaving your child and not being sure it will be OK.  Whether we are bringing our child to a new early childhood classroom or dropping them off at college it’s all the same. At both ends we have to give up our children in some way. we have to let them go the become who they are going to be…often without us.

Still, I love this time of year. I love the planning and the school supply shopping. I love the promise of the days being more organized and ordered. Don’t get me wrong…I totally love summer, but autumn is like the first day of the new year to me. It is a new start and a new beginning. I make resolutions in the the fall. I start new calendars and develop new ways of keeping things organized. I resolve to follow a schedule this year. I resolve to be slower and not to rush from thing to thing this year. These resolutions often last about five days and then reality sets in (although I am determined this year to make them stick!). So for me this is a magical time of year. To me there is nothing more exciting than the promise of learning new things, nothing more exciting than the opportunity to discover a new idea, test a new skill, and make a new friend.


At the same time, this time of transition can bring sadness. Where did the years go? How can they be this old? Where did the summer go, along with all my grand plans for how to spend it? What will they do without me all day…or maybe what will I do without them all day? But there is joy too…the crying stops (for both adults and children), the stories of the wonder of learning start to pile up, and we all become comfortable with the transition. We made it.

It’s a new year and a time of new beginnings. Savor every moment of learning with your child just like we do here at SEEC. Drown yourself in their questions and their wonder and start looking at the world through curious eyes again. It’s true that transitions can be tough, but they can also be filled with growth, wonder and joy. Savor every moment—the rough and the joyful— it is through transition that we grow.