Working with Young Dual Language Learners and their Families

The Early Childhood Action Collective (ECAC) is pleased to share the latest in a series of briefs intended to inform the implementation and improvement of early childhood programs in Philadelphia.
Written by Peggy Hickman, Working with Dual Language Learners and their Families in Early Learning Settings, examines the increasing need to support young children who are dual language learners. Hickman identifies who these young learners are, recommends best practices to support them, and shares resources available for early learning programs.

Play to Learn: New Resources in Philadelphia and Beyond to Support Young Children’s Free Play and Guided Play

By Laura Sosinsky

Parents and early educators alike can see that when young children play, they learn. 

Opportunities to learn spring naturally from different types of play. Through pretend play, children understand what people are like and how they think – including understanding themselves – which helps them learn social adjustment and social competence. Messy play and nature-based play support development of sensory awareness – and are exciting to children.  Complex play, like dramatic play and partner play, gives children the chance to practice and master skills like attention, memory, and planning (which are part of executive functioning). Block play supports learning math, physics, and engineering.  Plus, building with blocks together with other children supports sharing and teamwork. Games are fun, plus through games, children learn appropriate ways to cooperate and compete.[1]

Outdoor play gives many opportunities to support early learning and development. Physical play in outdoor spaces supports health and combats obesity, of course, plus when children have places to explore, children gain a sense of discovery.  Outdoor play also inspires some of the most complex, interactive types of play that support the development of social skills and promotes positive peer interactions.

Children have fewer and fewer opportunities to play, however.  Big body play, in particular, is threatened by concerns about safety and pressure to get children ready for school.  Children in poorer communities may have the fewest chances to play outside and run around, as they have less access to high-quality and safe outdoor play spaces and educators are under extra pressure to close the readiness gap.

Allowing your child to play is a must! A healthy balance between children playing on their own and having structured play with parents is important for early learning and development.

A new infographic from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development maps out suggestions for free play and guided play. Together, these are known as “playful learning.”  Children playing on their own are engaged, intrinsically motivated, and having fun.  Lightly structured play gently guided by educators or parents preserves a child’s direction of her own learning and adds adult support for the child to make progress toward a learning goal. A healthy balance between free play and structured play is important for young children’s early learning and development.

Pennsylvania and Philadelphia guidance and resources provide early educators with information and opportunities to support early learning through play.  Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Standards (ELS), which are research-based according to age and development and form the foundation for curriculum, assessment, instruction and intervention for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers within early care and education programs, start with “Approaches to Learning through Play” as the first standard.

Professional Development Opportunities about PLAY

Play is an important part of teacher preparation, professional development, and continuing education in early childhood education in Pennsylvania.  The PA Keys PD Registry offers many resources, including several upcoming events this fall: 

Children’s Village

·         Goal Oriented Free Play – 10/3/17 from 1-3 PM

Better Kid Care from Penn State Extension

·         Play Supports Executive Functioning – 9/16/17 from 1-3 PM; 11/17/17 from 1-3 PM

·         Outdoor Play and Exploration – 1/4/18 from 6-9 PM

Better Kid Care also offers online resources such as a tip page on Connecting Play and Learning and lessons such as including Project-Based Learning and Adventurous Play.  

Places to Play around Philadelphia:

·       Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse has been providing and promoting opportunities for unstructured free play for children in a 16,000 square foot Playhouse and on 6 ½ acres of open fields, wooded terrain, and sloped hills since 1899. 

·         Three innovative playgrounds, winners of the nationwide Play Everywhere Challenge, are coming to West Philadelphia:  The Playable Sidewalk (Lancaster Avenue), Urban Thinkscape (Belmont), which is due to open this month, and The Play Parklet (University City).

Resources around the web:

·         The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has a selection of articles on the latest research on play, play based learning, why play is an important part of children's learning and development, the role of play in the classroom, and ideas to share with families.

·         Too Small To Fail, which is leading a public awareness and action campaign to promote the importance of early brain and language development and to empower parents with tools to talk, read, and sing with their young children from birth, has many resources, infographics, and a blog and twitter feed with tips and ideas. 

So, play, laugh, and learn!

[1] Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: How spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. Da Capo Press.

Laura Sosinsky is a developmental psychologist engaged in work to share data, interventions and strategies, and recommendations and action steps from the field to support successful early childhood programs in Philadelphia and the state as a consultant with the Early Childhood Action Collective at PHMC.  With experience in research and evaluation of early childhood practice and policy from positions in academia, research, and government, she is currently also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College and a member of the Board of Directors of the Child Care Council of Westchester. Laura received her B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Yale University. 

Math, Money, & Minutes: Barriers to Educational Advancement among Early Childhood Teachers

By:  Kelly Feighan and Amy Friedlander

A few months ago, we interviewed a group of six center-based teachers in early childhood education (ECE). These teachers were part of the first cohort of a new apprenticeship program that developers hoped would foster educational and career advancement. While well intentioned and motivated to take advantage of this new resource, each teacher discontinued participation in the cohort. What caused them to drop-out? What might have helped them continue? Read Math, Money & Minutes to learn about the barriers that prevented these six teachers from educational completion and recommendations to mitigate those barriers.

High-Quality Early Childhood Spaces: A New Resource for Planning and Design

By Laura Sosinsky

About 14% of certified providers in Philadelphia are considered high quality (STAR 3 or 4) and are serving about 5% of city children under 5.1  This is a fraction of the city’s unmet need for slots in high-quality centers.

How are efforts in Philadelphia working to expand the number of high-quality slots available for young children?  One way is through facilities initiatives.

Early Childhood Spaces Matter for Children, Teachers, and Families

Staff and space directly translate into a center’s capacity to provide slots for children at each age group and are the two most important (and most expensive) components of a high-quality child care experience. This summer, Reinvestment Fund and Public Health Management Corporation released a new guide to provide currently operating child care providers or prospective providers in Philadelphia with information for the planning and design of high-quality early childhood spaces.

Early childhood spaces, if well designed, can encourage a child’s social, physical, language and cognitive, creative, and emotional development through play and learning in a healthy, safe, stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing environment. Space that fosters exploration through physical arrangement and child-sized furniture and materials can increase the complexity and sophistication of play and the amount of time children spend in complex play, which is how young children learn.  Equipment and toys that are well-designed and thoughtfully organized can increase children’s attention spans and improve cooperative group play. Adequate quiet space with soft materials and furniture that are visually set apart may support a homier feel and increase interaction with books.  Sufficient duplicates of toys and small centers encourage cooperation and discourage tussles over possession.  Circulation paths can ease transitions between activities and spaces, reducing behavior problems and keeping children safe.  Outdoor space has a particular importance in offering children many more opportunities for particular types of play experiences, including the most complex form of interactive peer play, more readily than the classroom.

Conversely, when problems occur over and over, the design and arrangement of the space could be part of the trouble.2 Crowding is associated with children’s attentional deficits and more time off task.  Open plans are similarly associated with distraction and off-task time, plus are noisier. Noise (chronic and acute high levels) may harm children’s memory and recall, perhaps by reducing attention and ability to tune out distractions, and can contribute to cognitive development problems.  Crowding and noise also correlate with a rise in cortisol (a stress hormone) over the morning period and may reduce compliance.  

Crowding, noise, and other space problems might reduce the amount and quality of adult-child interactions.  Teachers are the most critical element for children and are likely better able to do their jobs well in a well-designed space. High noise levels are a common teacher complaint.  Teachers working in loud classrooms report greater fatigue, annoyance, and less patience, and teaching time is lost and teaching styles may be altered. 

Early childhood spaces can also be designed to be friendly to families.  Welcoming entrances and sufficient space for greeting and parting, security features, and planned places to organize children’s belongings, such as cubbies near the entrance, are elements that should not be forgotten in the design stages.

Of course, a center has to meet licensing and regulatory requirements.  Centers are inspected by everything from the fire department to the Department of Public Health’s Office of Food Protection.  Food safety, hygiene in toileting and diaper changing, prevention of the spread of germs, and support of healthy sleep and rest all start with the design of the space. Teachers need to be able to supervise children, and things like transparent barriers, low-level partitions, dividers, toilets, and sinks in the classroom can increase visibility, allow ratios to be maintained, and lessen program interruptions. 

Childcare Center Design Guide: A new resource

This new guide compiles licensing and regulatory requirements established by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) and the City of Philadelphia as a resource to centers with plans to expand or renovate spaces in a current program, purchase and renovate existing non-childcare facilities, or design and construct a new center. 

The guide also compiles best practice recommendations from three resources:  the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s accreditation standards (NAEYC), the Caring for Our Children health and safety standards, and the Environment Rating Scales’ (ERS) quality indicators, which are widely used observational assessment tools including in Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS.  Among other factors, the ERS assesses how well indoor space meets the needs of children and staff as well as the arrangement of the room for play and learning. In STARS centers, Space and Furnishings scores positively correlate with assessments of children’s learning and development. In one example, ERS scores at the Jolly Toddlers center suggest how positive staff-child interactions and developmentally appropriate room arrangement and indoor space can support positive child behavior. 

The guide describes the planning and predevelopment steps to consider prior to expanding or constructing a child care center, such as interviewing architects experienced in child care design and developing a project budget. The project budget should include all capital expenses, such as the cost of land, buildings, and equipment needed to bring the project to fruition, as well as noncapital start-up costs (e.g., the cost of licensing, permits, legal and architecture fees). 

The takeaway?  The quality of the space in a child care setting (amount of space, color, light, noise, and materials) can affect early learning, and any expansion project should consider the design elements critical to quality in early childhood spaces. 


American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Childcare and Early Education. (2011). Caring for Our Children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. 3rd Edition. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.

Colbert, J. (1997). Classroom design and how it influences behavior. Early Childhood News, 9(3), 22-29.

Evans, G. W. (2006). Child development and the physical environment. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 423-451.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R.M. (2006). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS): Revised Edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R.M. (2005). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS): Revised Edition. New York: Teachers College Press, 2005.

Helburn, S. W., & Howes, C. (1996). Child care cost and quality. The future of children, 62-82.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2008). Why play= learning. Encyclopedia on early childhood development, 1-7.

Li, J., Hestenes, L. L., & Wang, Y. C. (2016). Links between preschool children’s social skills and observed pretend play in outdoor childcare environments. Early Childhood Education Journal, 44(1), 61-68.

NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standards and Accreditation Criteria: The Mark of Quality in Early Childhood Education. (2005). Washington, DC.

Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL). (2017). Program Reach and Risk Assessment, State Fiscal Year 2015-16, April 2017. Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Education and Department of Human Services, Harrisburg, PA.

Schrecker, B., Norton, M.H., and Goldstein, I. (2017). Estimating Changes in the Supply of and Demand for Child Care in Philadelphia. Policy Solutions at Reinvestment Fund, Philadelphia, PA.

Shim, S. Y., Herwig, J. E., & Shelley, M. (2001). Preschoolers' play behaviors with peers in classroom and playground settings. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(2), 149-163.

Singer, D. G., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.). (2006). Play= Learning: How play motivates and enhances children's cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press.

Sirinides, P., Fantuzzo, J., LeBoeuf, W., Barghaus, K., & Fink, R. (2015). An inquiry into Pennsylvania's Keystone STARS. Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Trancik, A. M., & Evans, G. W. (1995). Spaces fit for children: Competency in the design of daycare center environments. Children's Environments, 311-319.


1 The maximum potential supply of seats, if every city center were to enroll to its occupancy capacity, is 14,637 (20.9% of all certified seats, and 14.5% of all seats).  An OCDEL report from June 2017 indicates 10,362 children are in STAR 3 and 4 centers. However, occupancy capacity is not the same as enrollment capacity, which may depend on other factors like staffing levels. “Maximum capacity” means the total number of children that the facility is permitted to serve, as specified on the license. The maximum capacity is determined by the square footage, showers, sinks, and toilets and protects from overcrowding, and ensures that the number of children served in the facility does not exceed toilet, bathing or hand-washing facilities necessary to maintain sanitary conditions. “Enrollment capacity” means the total number of children that the center is permitted to serve to be in compliance with staff-child ratios and group size licensing regulations.   If staffing levels are lower than maximum building capacity, the potential supply of seats is lower as well. 

2 Better Kid Care through Penn State Cooperative Extension offers a professional development lesson, Changing Spaces, to help child care practitioners explore ways to analyze space in a child care setting, identify trouble spots, and learn ways to improve space arrangement.