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.