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Longtime Santa Cruz Toddler Center Built on Respect for the Child

Santa Cruz locals consider the Santa Cruz Toddler Center to be a community treasure. Founded in 1976 by Catherine Boxer and Kate Kelly, the center is a nonprofit childcare serving 1- and 2-year-olds, with sliding scale fees, and a ratio of 4 tots per teacher. The city and county of Santa Cruz contributes about 25 percent of the center's operating costs.

The center's programs are built on the philosophy of Magda Gerber, founder of the Resources for Infant Educarers program.The key to the philosophy is respect for children, Director Nora Caruso said. http://http://www.rie.org/

According to the third edition of a book the center publishes, printed last year, "1, 2, 3... The Toddler Years," that means treating children as individuals whose thoughts, feelings and needs are important; giving them the chance to grow and learn at their own pace, and allowing them freedom to create and master their own challenges.http://http://www.amazon.com/One-Two-Three-Toddler-Years/dp/0940953234

The book was written by Irene Van der Zande with help from center staff and is used as a text in community colleges and other child care training settings, Administrative Director Sandy Davie said.

Davie said her background is in history, but that she has stayed at the center for years because she believes so strongly in the way they educate small children to get along with themselves and others.

"This is a really unusual place," she said. "These children are learning social and emotional skills at a key time, and learning to express their feelings, ask for things, and say no."

Janis Keyser, formerly of the Cabrillo College Early Childhood Education Department and coauthor of "Becoming the Parent You Want to Be" stated that the center's book "offers creative, respectful strategies" for both parents and teachers.

"They are kind of a Santa Cruz treasure," said Keyser, who now works in child care for Google.

Keyser said the center "does things with children, not to children," and she praised their practice of assigning a particular caregiver as each child's main teacher.

At the Santa Cruz Toddler Center, the children are allowed some carefully orchestrated freedom, so that they can learn to make their own age-appropriate choices.

They nap when they get tired, and their caregivers have taught them to recognize the signs of being tired, so that they soon begin announcing nap time on their own.

On a recent morning, several tots sat down to lunch in a remarkably organized way, certain of the expectations and the routine. The menu was a nutritional powerhouse, featuring organic, whole wheat pasta, kale chips, pistachios, chard and nutritional yeast, some grown in the center's garden.

The children were able to leave when they were done, and most carefully carried their dishes to a dirty-dish bin.

Director Nora Caruso said center teachers acknowledge the tots' feelings and meet challenges head-on; there is little distracting of youngsters, and lots of acknowledging their feelings.

"It's amazing how that works, to narrate their feelings," Caruso said.

It's important for parents to be confident when handling touchy situations too, she said, as children watch their non-verbal cues like little hawks.

Caruso offered an example. She said two 2-year-olds were sitting on the edge of the sand box when one pushed the other. Don't push me, the child said, but the other child persisted. So the child said she was "moving my body away now," and simply walked to another area.

"Our philosophy is so simple, and if everyone used it, it would be a very different world. We sometimes say that we are changing the world one diaper at a time," Caruso said.

She said the program is a model that has hosted early childhood educators from around the world.

Pam Anderson, whose daughter Charlotte attends the center, is typical of most parents in her praise of the center.

"I have nothing but praise for the work of the directors and staff in this remarkable learning community," Anderson said. "It has been an absolute pleasure watching her emotional, cognitive, social, emotional, physical and linguistic development blossom over the past 10 months."

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