The Power of Play (and its Role in Early Childhood Education)

Every child grows up with a dream of what they will become when they enter the working world. From Kindergarten, we learn about adult life through Career Days, Take your Child to Work Days, and of course, our families and neighbors. For me, it wasn’t the parents in my classroom telling us about their careers, but the teachers who I looked up to the most.

I remember as a little girl, I would transform my room into a preschool, line my dolls up, and teach them. It wasn’t just the teaching that appealed to me, but the accessories as well. I was just as happy to walk around a home office store as I was a toy store. I ran a very organized “doll preschool” with folders, stickers, certificates, and even daily progress reports.

As adults, we often forget what it feels like to be swept away by our imaginations, but I remember this magical feeling; the feeling of deep, focused, imaginative play. At that young age, I knew that whatever I was going to be when I grew up, it would involve the power of play. Fast forward 15 years, and it came time to pick a college internship. With my love for pretend play, the only logical choice for me was Walt Disney World.

At Disney, all employees start at entry level, so I started as a lifeguard. I loved the safety and responsibility that came with lifeguarding, but more than that, I enjoyed the children’s activities that we led. It wasn’t long before I found myself in charge of planning these activities, and was offered a full time position. I was involved in launching Caribbean Beach Resort’s Pirate Cruise, which is still sailing the high seas today, 10 years later.

My time at Disney was invaluable to my self-growth and career focus. It was during my years there that I decided that at some point, I would open my own daycare. I wanted to be around young children who could get lost in play, but first, I wanted to have some children of my own. In 2010, I had my first child and stayed home with her until she was 18 months old. At that point, I started looking for careers in early childhood development.

Finding a job wasn’t a problem, but finding quality child care was. I toured several daycares, both child care centers and home based daycares. With the exception of a few with extremely long wait lists, I was not finding what I was looking for. It was then that I decided it was time to open Cummings Family Childcare, and thanks to my time at Disney, I knew where to start.

Disney’s “Four Keys” were my guideline for starting my home daycare. “Safety, Courtesy, Show, Efficiency”, with the priority starting with safety, and ending with efficiency. No matter how profitable a business plan looks, profit relies on success, and success relies on safety and courtesy. In addition to the keys to success, Disney confirmed the importance of play, so with that, I had my curriculum platform.

Our play-based curriculum focuses on free time, self-exploration, and imagination. We present the children with a weekly theme, letter, sign, and plenty of crafts. While naps, lunch, and snacks are at a specific time, the rest is up to them. I like to think about the day as a rhythm, not a schedule. We flow through the day with lots of teacher-led free play, and plug in our crafts, group activities, and games when we see the group looking for focus.

Our themes are not introduced during a “Circle Time” but rather during play.

“Molly, look at that blue car! Did you know our color this week is blue? What else in the room is blue? Should we tell our friends what our color is?”

“Charlie, you have a cow in your hand! This week we are learning about where cows live, do you know where a cow lives? Who else lives on the farm?”

This way, we’re enhancing their play-time with education, rather than interrupting it. When we feel the need for some structure, we introduce our songs for the week. Have you ever sat in the middle of 7 toddlers and started singing “Old McDonald?” It’s the quickest way to get their attention, and much more fun than a timer! Children start Kindergarten at age 5, from then on, they will have a schedule, they will have time limits, and they will sit still.

Until then, at Cummings Family Childcare, we play and learn!

Children learn through play more than I could ever teach them with lessons. To learn colors, we like to gather all the yellow toys in the room, and compare them to the red ones. To learn counting, we take steps across the room and count, or take off our socks and count our toes. In addition to basic preschool prep, through play, children learn to be patient, to listen, to help out, to share, and that sometimes it’s okay not to share. They learn how to play independently. Without independent play, children lack the option to use their imagination. Through independent play, children can create their own worlds, limited only by the boundaries of their imaginations.

Our play-based learning program has proven to encourage babies to grow into balanced, free spirited, loving toddlers who are ready for preschool. Because almost all of our children enroll before 4 months old, watching them leave for preschool is the hardest part of my career. During the three years that a child is with us, we fall in love with them, and become very close to their parents. In addition to our live time communication application, each parent has my personal cell phone number, and that of all our staff.

We encourage them to participate in planned get-togethers, bi-monthly parent night outs, and alumni parties. Our mission is to make sending their child to daycare the least stressful part of returning to work. We accomplish our mission by kindling life-long relationships, and a bond that I can only describe as family.

When I decided to open my first location, I knew I wanted to create a one of a kind, home-based child care that ran like a center. I not only wanted to provide excellent, loving, care, but also wanted new toys, matching cribs, quality organic foods, and top notch staff. I drafted a business plan, organized funding, and put my plan to action. Since that day, I have watched my career grow in ways I never could have dreamed of.

In 2014, I was recognized by the Women’s Business Association in D.C. for my success and accomplishments. I have grown from being the sole provider, to having two full-time employees, including a director, and several substitutes. I have settled into my position as child care owner, and am constantly reaching for the next star. The future for CFCC is unlimited. We are currently in the process of opening a second location in Ashburn, due to open in August 2015, and hope to have a small, 40 child center open by the end of 2016.

The earliest years of our lives are the ones that shape us into the adults we will become. If I could wish something upon each child that walks through our doors, it would be that as adults, they remember the magic of play.


maricaitBy Mari-Cait Cummings

Owner of Cummings Family Child Care in Reston, VA

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