In the state of NC, licensed early education programs can apply for star-rated licenses, from 1-5 stars.
- Staff Education in early childhood can earn the program up to seven points.
- Program Standards can also earn up to seven points (by considering the number of activity areas available for children, teacher/child ratios, maximum group size of each class, and participation in the environment rating scales (ERS) assessments).
- One Quality Point can be earned by meeting some enhanced standards in either staff education or program.
Wildflower Cottage opened its doors for the first time in January 2017 with a temporary license (which is required of all new programs). After the required 6-month waiting period, we were eligible to apply for a star-rated license. Right out of the gate in July 2017, we earned a 5-star license. We knew this was an important component for a new program; we had no history, and positive word-of-mouth had only begun.
After relocating into our “forever home” in September 2023, we received another temporary license (which is required with a new physical address). During the required 6-month waiting period, we came to realize that our Reggio-inspired, nature-based curriculum does not easily fit inside the box of the Environment Rating Scales (ERS). If a program decides to forgo the ERS, they cannot earn more than 2 points in the Program category. Fortunately, we have high Staff Education, more than the required number of activities, and lower than required ratios. Even without participation in the ERS, we have earned a 4-star rated license (7 out of 7 points for Staff Education, 2 out of 7 points for Program Standards, and 1 out of 1 point for Quality point). Nothing about Wildflower’s program quality or curriculum is changing; we have simply become more precise in articulating our philosophy.
These are the areas where the ERS are incompatible with our current Reggio-inspired, nature school model:
- TOYS & MATERIALS: The ERS requires an overwhelming number of toys/materials to be accessible for a substantial portion of the day (3.33 hours each day). Since we are outdoors so often, we would need to load up a wagon (or bus?) to wheel into the playgrounds/forest with ~25 books, at least 12 fine motor materials, 3 different kinds of blocks that could each build a sizable structure, 15-25 math toys, 2 soft items per child, 1 manipulative/puzzle per child, more than 3 kinds of art materials, etc. Our unconventional learning materials made of nature items or recycled scraps are usually not recognized by the ERS, which prefers plastic, manufactured toys. Our time spent digging earth and playing in the creek do not meet the ERS requirement for sand/water play. Loose parts--such as wine corks--do not meet the requirements for dramatic play “food.” Fabric capes do not meet the requirements for dramatic play “costumes.” Wildflower is intentional that these materials should be open-ended in order to foster imagination and invention. Wildflower also believes that inundating children with too many toys over-stimulates the brain and facilitates surface-level play with shorter focus and less depth.
- INDOOR ENVIRONMENT: The ERS requires many colorful pictures, posters, photographs, etc. which can be seen throughout the room. At Wildflower, we have observed how this type of display provides an overloaded sensory diet for the children. Instead, we create a home-like environment where children can see photos of their own families/pet, displays of their own art/documented learning, and carries personal meaning for them.
- OUTDOOR ENVIRONMENT: Our forest romps and neighborhood walks are not eligible to be factored into the ERS requirements for “gross motor play spaces.” Our current playgrounds designed by the Natural Learning Initiative do not meet the ERS criteria for manufactured, commercial “gross motor play equipment.”
- PACE OF THE DAY: The ERS would like to qualify that children never wait for more than 3 minutes between activities. Wildflower believes that short moments of down-time (“boredom”) allow children to take their time, to invent/imagine, and to learn how to delay gratification.
- TEACHERS’ ROLE: The ERS would like teachers to greet each child individually whenever they enter a classroom, even if that means they interrupt the child’s play in process. The ERS encourages teachers to jump into the middle of pretend play; Wildflower believes that this hijacks the child-led play and inserts the teacher into the main role that should be carried by another child. The ERS wants teachers to talk and ask questions incessantly throughout the day; Wildflower believes that there is an appropriate balance of talking and listening during a child’s exploration.
- CONFLICT RESOLUTION: The ERS would like staff to anticipate and squelch social problems before they occur; Wildflower believes that teachers should be anchored nearby to allow children to try out new problem-solving skills with some level of autonomy, to request a teacher’s help when they need it, and to experience natural social consequences. We do not seek to avoid conflict; we embrace each of these opportunities to teach important life skills.
Interestingly, Wildflower’s decision to forgo the ERS assessments comes at the same time as the Division of Child Development and Early Education has recognized the need to modernize the star-rated system in NC. The Quality Rating Improvement System is now 20+ years old. The Child Care Commission has agreed to take on this large task, with hopes for a proposed outline for updates in April 2024.
We do realize that some families may still desire an external “endorsement” of program quality, as the ERS seeks to provide. Over the next year or two, Wildflower will embark upon the accreditation journey through NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children). This accreditation has been recognized at the national and international level for over 30 years. Its standards have continuously evolved alongside new research and innovation in early childhood education. We believe NAEYC accreditation would be a better option for Wildflower to illustrate program standards in a more creative, open-ended way.
The ”magic” of Wildflower Cottage could never be fully illustrated through licensing or accreditation. Read more about our dream for early childhood education HERE.