On December 1, QUALITYstarsNY participant Exploration Acres hosted lawmakers for the final stop of NYS Senator Jabari Brisport’s state-wide child care listening tour.  Owned and operated by René & Paul Leonard, Exploration Acres is a group family child care program in Granville—located in Washington County in northern New York, which joined QUALITYstarsNY during the pandemic. Their QUALITYstarsNY Quality Improvement Specialist Sarah Gould-Houde also joined for the visit to discuss the importance of quality in early childhood education.

NYS Senator Jabari Brisport, who chairs the NYS Senate Children & Families Committee, was joined by NYS Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, chair of the NYS Assembly Children & Families Committee, and the Leonards’ local representative, NYS Senator Dan Stec [NYS Senate District 45]. Child care advocates Dede Hill, Director of Public Policy for the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, and Marina Marcou-O’Malley, Policy & Operations Director for the Alliance for Quality Education, were also there for the visit, as well as Pam Wells, the President of CSEA/VOICE Local 100A, a statewide union for New York state family child care providers.

Exploration Acres’ approach to early childhood education is uniquely focused on outdoor, nature-based play. The children spend most of the day outside in their expansive, engaging outdoor area, which offers multiple play and learning areas and activity centers. The lawmakers had the opportunity to engage with the children during the entire visit through several outdoor activities. They grabbed musical instruments in the program’s outdoor music corner and joined the children as they sprayed water bottles filled with waters of different colors in the snow.

The Leonards also lead visitors on a tour of their intricate outdoor play space nestled in a patch of pine trees, which features a play kitchen area, a wooden maze, balance beam, and a fairy area where the trees are decorated with ribbons, butterflies, and frogs. They also have an outdoor center for dramatic play and gross motor gym of tires and ladders.

Lawmakers were excited to experience and learn about this unique nature-based early learning environment. They listened intently to René and Paul’s explanations about their approach to early childhood education and what they hope to see addressed in state child care policies.

This visit was the final stop of NYS Senator Brisport’s child care listening tour, which he launched in September to learn directly from child care providers about their challenges and needs to help inform state policy. As he did with the other stops of the tour, NYS Senator Brisport hosted a virtual public forum after the visit where child care providers and parents from Capital District, Mohawk Valley, and North Country could provide input on policies related to universal child care.

Several QUALITYstarsNY programs have hosted lawmakers as part of the state-wide tour. QUALITYstarsNY thanks NYS Senator Brisport for conducting this listening tour, as well as NYS Assemblyman Hevesi, and the other lawmakers who have participated, for creating the opportunity for direct service providers to contribute to the conversation around child care state policies and universal child care.

Read about the Long Island and NYC stops of the child care tour, where lawmakers visited QUALITYstarsNY participants and their Quality Improvement Specialists to discuss their experiences in the wake of the pandemic.

Exploration Acres owners René and Paul Leonard host lawmakers and advocates at their group family child care program in Granville, NY.

(Left to right: Dede Hill, NYS Senator Jabari Brisport, René Leonard, Paul Leonard, NYS Senator Dan Stec, NYS Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, Marina Marcou-O’Malley)

Children and lawmakers play together with bottles of different colored water in the snow.

Lawmakers tour the outdoor fairy play area that the Leonards have decorated with ribbons, butterflies, and frogs.

Exploration Acres homemade gross motor gym created out of tires and ladders to support active play.

Lawmakers play musical instruments while René Leonard plays guitar in their music activity corner.

As part of the music area, Exploration Acres has the inside of a piano exposed so children can press the keys to play music and see the sound mechanics.