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Rooted In Community, Connected in Purpose

This week, hundreds of early childhood educators and family advocates gathered at Hershey Lodge and Convention Center for a two-day ECE Leaders Summit. This year’s theme, “Rooted in Community, Connected in Purpose,” inspired participants and presenters to learn from each other, share expertise, and ultimately work together to impact the future of early education in Pennsylvania. The programming focused on the concepts of play-based learning and community collaboration—both critically important for the development of ECE programs.

Paul Siefken, president and CEO of Fred Rogers Productions

The first day of the Summit featured a keynote address from Paul Siefken, president and CEO of Fred Rogers Productions. He emphasized the power of play to support child development using examples from his career in childhood television programming and inspiration from Fred Rogers. He illustrated how play-based learning results in the social-emotional skills—like empathy, resilience, and self-control—that children need to thrive in and out of the classroom.

The schedule for day two was packed with opportunities for participants to hear from and interact with additional keynote speakers, attend small group workshops, and network.

Participants first heard from Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, a researcher, author, and the Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at the University of Delaware. She introduced the six skills children need to reach their full potential: collaboration, communications, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence—all developed through play-based learning.

Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, a researcher, author, and the Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at the University of Delaware

“Playful learning is a vehicle to acquiring the ‘Six C’s’. While content is important, the educators should be inspired to follow the child’s lead—that’s what guided play is,” described Dr. Golinkoff. “Learnings from today will inform how classrooms can be set up and what materials are brought into the lessons. It’s important to give children an excellent early start.”   

To expand on the topic of play, attendees participated in breakout sessions based on their profession, which included:

  • “Yay for Play! Building strong foundations for developing minds,” focused on implementing play-based learning in classrooms
  • “Building Confident Children: Engaging Parents in Building Strong Minds through Play,” designed to support the integration of play-based learning with home and family engagement
  • Investing in Play: Building the Foundation for our Future,” equipping leaders to elevate play-based learning through multiple levels of an ECE system

Summit attendees represented direct-care providers at childcare facilities, educators and administrators from K-12 schools and higher education, social workers, and non-profit leaders.

Attendees posing in the photo station during the Summit
Senate Alexander, Executive Director of Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning

One participant, Jeanne Mesko, is an infant/toddler lead teacher at CHS Harrisburg. She attended the Summit as part of the CHS Seeds to Lead program, a nearly year-long paid professional development experience for all staff before the Harrisburg Center opens later this year.

“I look forward to incorporating the philosophies—especially the Six C’s—introduced during the sessions and keynotes,” explained Mesko. “Having worked in education for more than 20 years, play-based learning has always been a focus. Today, I am reenergized to see other educators also focused on the importance of incorporating the family and wider community in evaluating the development of a child.”

Chasity Lord, president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program

Another keynote speaker, Chasity Lord, president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, has dedicated her career to tackling issues facing generational poverty and emphasizing the importance of family involvement in a child’s education and development. She challenged the audience to think of themselves as agents of change and use their role to redefine how early childhood education serves the children but also supports their families.

“It is critical to realize the most important person in the child’s life is the person they wake up with. The parent cannot be left out of the equation,” explained Lord. “As educators, we know that collective engagement will further the goals we have the in the classroom, and the aspirations parents have for their child.”

Carolyn Green, chief of staff of the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL)

Carolyn Green, chief of staff at the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL), joined Lord in continuing the discussion bringing the state-wide early childhood education perspective.

New for this year, the CHS ECE Leaders Summit included a poster session, in which attendees submitted proposals to display their research and work in the community. Among the presenters were students from Milton Hershey School who showcased work and summarized their learnings from their semester-long internship at CHS Hershey through the school’s Career and Technical Education program.

“It’s uplifting to be in the room with the educators and learn from the presenters. I felt like I have made it, and I am part of the community,” said MHS senior Aaliyah McClellan. “During my internship at CHS Hershey I am getting a genuine, hands-on experience to work with the children and learn to care for them. At the Summit, we had a chance to think about our future classrooms and it has even more solidified what I want to do for my future.”

Collaboration in action during the Yay for Play! breakout session
Attendees visiting the Ask the Evaluators booth during the Summit

The energy and excitement for the future of early childhood education was palpable throughout the venue. The focus on the future continued as attendees explored breakout sessions specific to their roles, and engaged in a facilitated a trends-identifying session presented by award-winning reporter at EdSurge, Emily Tate Sullivan, titled Trends and Reflections: Action Planning for a Purposeful Future.” The conference concluded with roundtable discussions for attendees to implement the learnings from the conference into their day-to-day roles. “The theme of community collaboration emphasized that everyone in the room contributes to the success of the children and the future of early childhood education as a whole,” said Senate Alexander, executive director of CHS. “Between the expert speakers, networking opportunities, and professional development, I hope all attendees left feeling equipped to continue to be change-makers in the field.”

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning are subsidiaries of Milton Hershey School and will be staffed and operated independently of the Milton Hershey School core model.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.