When my children were in elementary school, there were times when I could not attend school events and meetings. I’d ask my mother or sister to stand in for me when it was a cultural or sporting event. However, I’d reschedule even the most difficult work meeting or commitment if it was an academic meeting or parent-teacher conference. Like many, I compartmentalized learning, believing that parenting, grandparenting, and schooling were essentially different, and that most learning happened in formal spaces like school. 







Earlier this week, on a crisp Fall day, I was at a pumpkin patch event at the Greater Newark Conservancy organized by my colleagues from the Early Learning team at the Newark Trust for Education. I watched children aged 0-12 excitedly running around, painting pumpkins, singing, dancing, and engaging with a storyteller. There were around 30 children and as I watched the adults sit down to eat a picnic with them or gather them to take them home after a fun-filled afternoon, I noticed that there were mothers and fathers present, but also “caregivers,” especially grandmothers. I fondly remembered times when my mother gamely accompanied her three grandsons to events like this, but because of the way I’ve started to view learning more recently, I also acknowledged the huge role she played in their early learning. Instead of separating “academic” from “cultural” or “sports” or “family” events, the grandmothers at the pumpkin patch reminded me that learning happens everywhere. A culture of learning that permeates families and communities supports multiple opportunities for children to learn and develop across home and formal learning environments. 


As we sipped the hot cocoa served to all the families by my colleagues, Maria (who was there with her son and granddaughters), talked about how she was teaching her oldest son and his partner all that she had learned about early learning with her youngest son Manny. She remembered how, as she participated in the Trust’s Newark ParentChild+ program, a program supported by the Cooperman Family Foundation, she experienced the first wave of awareness that talking, reading, singing, and playing with Manny routinely is a critical first step to developing a stimulating learning environment at home. Maria also participated in a study we conducted, and in interviews discussed how she emphasized the importance of early learning through building in weekly library visits for Manny, play dates with peers, reading and playtime with his siblings, and treating even routine walks to the grocery store or the park as teachable moments. Once Manny started school, she ensured that she routinely interacts with school representatives and asks questions, and offers input in ways that enhance his overall school experience. 


Maria has also organically created a network of friends, neighbors, and family members that she connects with the Trust’s meetings and events for Newark families, and broader events and resources in the city. She’s developed the habit of sharing information on services that she has learned about through acquiring them for her own son. And now that she’s a grandmother she includes her oldest son, his partner, and her granddaughters in this culture of learning and connection. Maria has created a ripple that builds steadily outward into her community.

Looking back, my family would have benefited from Maria’s seamless approach to removing barriers and enriching learning across home and school environments, and intentionally connecting other parents and caregivers with the multitude of useful resources we came across as we supported our children in their growth and development. We routinely had wonderful and stimulating interactions with the boys as they were growing up, but compartmentalized what we thought teachers and parents and grandparents were each supposed to do. Maria and other parents and caregivers that the Trust works with are successfully bridging these roles and paying it forward to others in their community. Together we are slowly but surely contributing to a connected ecosystem within which Newark’s children can learn and thrive.