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“1,800 Days: The Story of Early Childhood in the U.S.” Podcast – Q&A with Erikson Institute

Since 2017, the Heising-Simons Foundation’s Education program has been supporting the Erikson Institute, an independent graduate school for early childhood development, education, and social work. To mark its 55th anniversary, Erikson Institute recently produced “1,800 Days,” a five-episode podcast documenting the history of the early childhood development, care, and education fields, as well as conversations about the current state of the field. Produced in partnership with Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and hosted by award-winning journalist Natalie Moore of WBEZ, the podcast features the voices and expertise of Erikson co-founder Barbara Taylor Bowman and other national leaders in the field. See Q&A with Erikson Institute below.

Erikson Institute’s 1,800 Days Podcast tells the story of early childhood in the U.S. from the perspective of the pioneers, partners, and the early care and education workforce. How did the idea for the podcast come about? Why was Erikson interested in telling this story (or how was Erikson best positioned to tell this story)?

From the launch of Head Start to the Preschool for All initiative, the past 60 years have been transformative to the field of early childhood development. Erikson Institute has been a key contributor to that growth. Our people, knowledge base, and programs have made an indelible impact on the journey to learn more about children’s early years.

In 2021, as Erikson was celebrating 55 years in the early childhood field, we started pondering how to tell the story of what we’ve learned, why it’s important, and where we are headed on the heels of the pandemic, the biggest societal disruption in our lifetime–especially for young children. We had noted in reflecting with our founder, Barbara Taylor Bowman, that there was no formal archive or oral history of the early childhood space and the journey from the perspective of the pioneers, partners, and general workforce in child development and early childhood education. We decided that a podcast would be the right vehicle to tell this story—not just about Erikson, but about the field as a whole.

What were some of the most surprising or unexpected stories, data, or insights that were learned in the process of producing 1,800 Days

One of the most striking takeaways from the series is that despite hundreds of years of history and decades of research on child development, our nation has not prioritized children, particularly very young children. Parents and caregivers are currently presented with a patchwork of programming that varies widely based on location, income level, race, and other factors. The early childhood workforce remains underpaid and overtaxed with long hours and challenging working conditions. What is particularly concerning in the wake of the pandemic is that children are facing even more challenges with mental health and learning loss – and our nation is ill-equipped to meet their needs. It’s a compelling and urgent situation.

How does the history of the early childhood sector in the U.S. help provide a perspective to discuss the state of the field today, and how to create pathways for our youngest learners to thrive? 

The podcast presents a historical framework that allows present-day practitioners and advocates to understand both the “what” in terms of past efforts to support young children, families, and communities, and the “why” – the underlying values that have or have not shifted over time. The impact of systemic forces such as racism become even more clear as we look back to the beginnings of “childcare” as a menial task assigned to enslaved persons and others working in a society divided by class and whiteness.

America has had examples over the years of pathways for our youngest learners to thrive, such as Head Start and Early Head Start, and widespread “preschool for all” efforts. However, we have no nation-wide system that supports all children with a baseline best-practice early childhood learning experience. We have a national public school system governed by laws guaranteeing all American children the right to be educated. We have no similar system guaranteeing all children’s right to developmentally appropriate childcare. “Care and education” is a term we used in the podcast because for young children they are intertwined—the years from birth to age five hold the greatest promise for children’s cognitive and physical development. We must keep pushing for a national system that truly gives all children the best start possible.

What is one thing you’d want your audience to take away from this podcast?

Ongoing advocacy is critical, informed by the latest research on child development in the context of systemic realities in the U.S. It’s clear our nation’s leadership isn’t yet ready to create the system children need, as illustrated by the recent defeat of President Biden’s funding plan for early care and education in the Build Back Better legislative package. Working with policy makers at the local and national level is necessary because kids can’t wait, and so many families are living in disinvested communities with few resources and environmental hazards like lead in the water supply that is damaging children’s potential now. Meanwhile, childcare providers are leaving the field. The sense of urgency is captured in what Maurice Sykes, Senior Associate at the Early Childhood Leadership Institute, says in the podcast: “We may not have a system to repair if we keep on going the way we are…”

What has the response been from the early childhood workforce, policymakers, caregivers, and the public at large so far? 

To date, the podcast series has had 6,970 downloads, with the first episode, “Pandemic: Informal Structures of Childcare” being the most popular with 1,478 downloads, and the second most popular being the last episode, “Where Do We Go from Here” with 1,464 downloads.  Our podcast webpage has had more than 4,600 visitors.

As a wrap-up event, we held a webinar in May that was attended by nearly 100 people from a wide range of sectors including public policy, early childhood programming, and academia. The webinar featured a panel of experts, including Erikson President Mariana Souto-Manning, Erikson professor and co-founder Barbara Bowman, Illinois State Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas, and Bela Mote, an Erikson alumna and CEO of the Carole Robertson Center.

The panelists discussed the needs they see in our current system, from individualized options for families to addressing inequities in pay and benefits for the early childhood workforce—which is composed disproportionately of women of color—and advocated for people to take action by voting, by involving families and early care workers in creating solutions, and by allocating more funds to the field.

We have also received positive feedback from various sources with more than one request for a “season two” of the podcast, which is something we are open to exploring.

Click below to listen to the series’ podcast.

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