An assortment of Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, and other seemingly random items topped the tables during a recent symposium at The Inn at Virginia Tech.

To an onlooker, the centerpieces might have appeared unimportant, but to the dozens of professionals gathered around them, they were a sample of the tools critical to crafting high-quality, open-ended learning experiences.

“We actually closed for today because we saw so much value in this,” said Karen Gallagher, director of the Child Development Center for Learning and Research at Virginia Tech. “It’s a true professional atmosphere. It’s fun, it’s professional, and it’s free.”

Gallagher was one of more than 100 early childhood educators from throughout the New River Valley to attend Virginia Tech’s Early Childhood Symposium on May 6. The all-day event provided them the opportunity to learn from world-renowned experts in the field, as well as time to network with local educators, in the hope of addressing the region’s issues related to their field.

“It’s been a particularly hard couple of years for early childhood educators,” said Kim Thomason, program manager for early childhood education initiatives at Virginia Tech. “This was about giving them a space to be together. To breathe and get a little respite, but also to enter into reflection of why children do what they do and rekindle that sense of joy that comes from teaching young children.”

The symposium was a part of Thomason’s work coordinating the university’s effort to identify community-based solutions to address the lack of adequate early care and education opportunities within the Virginia Tech community and the area surrounding the Blacksburg campus.

It’s an effort that grew out of a child care working group the university established in 2018 with the goal of improving quality, access, affordability, and flexibility of child care within our communities.

The day included uplifting presentations and discussions led by Deb Curtis, co-author of  Children’s Lively Minds, and early childhood consultant Eliana Elias. There also were small group activities led by local facilitators such as Gallagher and Tammie Sarver, director of Blue Mountain School in Floyd, Virginia.

“I think this [event] is uniquely designed to allow us to take this back to our schools because not everyone at every school was able to be here,” Saver said. “I feel well prepared to actually implement the things we did today and to share this inspiration with others.”

Thomason said the day was created in a way that would allow practices to be carried back to individual programs. She said she views the entire effort as a critical part of Virginia Tech living out its land-grant mission.

“One of the ways we can do that is to partner with our programs on really high-quality, meaningful professional development that hopefully supports the quality of teaching in the classroom and also reinvigorates teachers so they want to stay in the profession,” Thomason said.

Not only did providers in the New River Valley attend, but also several students who are a part of Blacksburg High School’s early childhood education program, which operates a preschool program.

“This helps them understand the expectation that if you go into the field, you have continuing education and professional development,” said Zara Radzai, family and consumer sciences teacher at the high school. “This allows them to get a jumpstart on that and get a taste as high school students planning their futures and careers after high school. It’s important to get your feet wet and see if this is something for me.”

Radzai said she also hoped the students saw the importance of professionalizing the field of early childhood education field as well as the challenges it is facing.

“Having their eyes open to that reality of the problems, hopefully they will be a part of the advocates as they become adults,” Radzai said.

Gallagher said having educators of all ages and experience levels present added a lot of value to their time together.

“It’s a diverse group with the understanding that we’re all experts with something to share and we’re also all learners,” Gallagher said. “That’s a powerful piece of this.”

Thomason said she hoped the symposium served as a part of ongoing professional development that will support consistent quality early care and education practices throughout the New River Valley.

“This symposium and its related learning communities we hope will serve as a cornerstone for fostering quality early care and education" in the New River Valley, Thomason said.

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