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UC San Diego’s Early Care and Education program cares for children of faculty, staff and students. Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

More Than Child’s Play

There’s a unique place on campus that is bustling with activity—complete with block tower achievements, finger painting masterpieces, bold singing performances and loud shrieks of laughter.

UC San Diego’s Early Care and Education program, which manages both the Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC) and Mesa Child Development Center (MCDC), is located in the Mesa neighborhood of East Campus, and provides care for children of faculty, staff and students who work, teach and learn on campus.

The centers care for approximately 280 children, aged 3 months to 5 years, meeting an important need for quality early education and childcare for campus community members.

Jenelle Dean, director of Student and Alumni Engagement at UC San Diego, has two children who have both attended the Early Childhood Education Center. “There’s nothing more that you want as working parents than to have peace of mind when you leave your small children in the care of others,” said Dean. “From day one, I’ve had peace of mind that they are safe, loved, and learning and growing.”

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The center won a countywide award for its work as a demonstration site for Breastfeeding-Friendly San Diego.

Recognizing the challenges associated with juggling academic careers and family responsibilities, the American Association of University Professors reports that a lack of family support services at a university has a negative impact on faculty recruitment and retention of women seeking tenure, which in turn, can hinder efforts to ensure gender equality. The same support is essential for staff members and student-parents who attend UC San Diego as well.

While the center meets this critical need, ECEC and MCDC are much more than just daycare. “It’s a place which ignites the spark of curiosity and the joy of discovery, where shared ideas drive research and design through the magic of play,” said Kathryn Owen, director of UC San Diego Early Care and Education.

Dean agrees. “At ECEC, the teachers, the curriculum, and the overall high-quality care and compassion have all exceeded my expectations,” she said. “I’ve seen my children blossom, they’ve had an awesome foundation for elementary school, and we’ve made lifelong friends from being part of the ECEC family. UC San Diego is so lucky to have this center as part of the campus, supporting the Triton family.”

The Early Care and Education program at UC San Diego has received numerous local and statewide awards for leadership, nutrition offerings and unique programming. The program also works with various campus departments in the Division of Social Sciences, UC San Diego Health, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and other areas to integrate research and best practices, as well as to drive innovative programming for children and their families.

Supporting Mothers and Lactation

For the smallest attendees and their families, the center strives to provide support and resources for mothers to continue breastfeeding their infants once they return to work.

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To encourage breastfeeding onsite, the center offers multiple private spaces for mothers.

“Breastfeeding provides both important nutrients for a baby to thrive and bonding time in support of attachment and healthy brain development,” said Owen. “Having a calm and private place to breastfeed and/or pump breastmilk greatly eases the stress for new mothers as they navigate balancing the commitments of work and family.”

The center is a demonstration site for Breastfeeding-Friendly San Diego (BFSD), which is a project of Live Well San Diego: Healthy Works, implemented by UC San Diego Center for Community Health with funding from First 5 San Diego. The efforts by ECEC and MCDC staff to support breastfeeding for its infants and families were recognized with a Breastfeeding-Friendly Childcare Center Award at San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition’s Liquid Gold Gala in the fall.

To encourage breastfeeding onsite, the center offers multiple private spaces for mothers. Breastfeeding-friendly information is available for parents in their classroom packets, and staff members use infant feeding plans, paced feeding and an app to track the amount of milk an infant drinks each day. They also offer refrigerated space and an organization system for storing pumped milk and infant foods.

The early education program has also partnered with the UC San Diego Center for Community Health to develop training modules to promote the benefits of creating lactation areas in the childcare setting. Owen says the collaborations of expertise at UC San Diego can pave the way for best practices at childcare centers nationwide.

“We were so excited to partner with ECEC and recognize them as a BFSD partner,” said Shana Wright Bruno, director of Lactation Supportive Environments at the UC San Diego Center for Community Health. “The center was the perfect site for filming our training videos as it was already implementing best practices to support both their staff and families in their breastfeeding journeys. It’s exciting to work within UC San Diego to support students, staff, faculty and their families.”

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The program recently received a grant from the UC San Diego Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to further integrate diversity and social justice concepts into the curriculum.

Teaching Social Justice

The Early Care and Education program has a long history of supporting diversity, equity and inclusion among its students. The Early Childhood Education Center received UC San Diego Community Champion Awards in 2001 and 2008, while the Mesa Child Development Center received the same award in 2011 for furthering the spirit of diversity and equal opportunity.

Research has shown that young children develop racial stereotypes and prejudice between 3 to 5 years of age, making the pre-school years a critical time for lessons in social justice and equality.

The Early Care and Education program recently received an Innovation grant from the UC San Diego Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to support additional efforts to integrate diversity and social justice concepts into the school’s curriculum. The programming is part of a collaborative research effort with the UC San Diego Department of Education Studies.

“Racial socialization in early childhood is an understudied area that has the potential for huge impacts on individual child as well as larger societal impacts,” said Alison Wishard Guerra, associate professor in the Department of Education Studies. “Through this project, we want UC San Diego to help lead the field of early education in centering anti-bias and culturally responsive curriculum as a necessary component of high-quality early care and education where all children thrive and learn to stand up against bias they experience in their everyday lives.”

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The center will develop strategies to more actively promote and consciously engage children in conversations about race, ethnicity and social justice issues.

With the funding, ECEC will work with a consultant specialized in social justice, and provide interactive training for all center staff, with the goal of developing strategies to actively promote and consciously engage children in conversations about race, ethnicity and social justice issues.

“We aspire to be early childhood educators who have a sense of cultural humility and an understanding of social justice, in support of children who are socially or institutionally marginalized,” said Owen, who recently served as a panelist at the Early Care and Education World Forum on the topic of “Inequities in Access and Quality. “Our desire is that every child in our care will develop a positive social identity and feel a sense of belonging and community spirit.”

Owen hopes to create a curriculum outline that can be adopted and adapted by all teachers in the field to better meet the needs of children and families of all backgrounds. The center is working to avoid potential cultural appropriation and the reinforcement of stereotypes by replacing dress-up clothing with colorful fabrics, and plastic food with authentic cooking materials. The school is also working with the UC San Diego Bookstore to seek out recently published books such as, “Don’t Touch My Hair!” to promote deeper discussions about personal boundaries and race.

“Our hope is that our students will recognize unfairness, and go out and paint a brighter world, with the ability to be both bold and kind in response to acts of discrimination and prejudice,” said Owen.