By Marie Huey, Public Policy & Advocacy Coordinator
Video by Kristie Thorson, Communications Specialist

Early Education Spotlight is an ongoing series that showcases great work happening in high-quality child care and preschool settings across Minnesota. From innovative early learning programs to parent perspectives on what works, check out the Early Education Spotlight for unique examples of Minnesota’s early learning successes.

Note: Our visit to Buttons and Bows Child Care took place in late February just before COVID-19 restrictions began. Shelley says her child care program has been open throughout the pandemic at almost full capacity.

Shelley Harrington doesn’t do anything halfway. When she has an idea she goes all in. For the children in her child care program, Buttons and Bows Child Care, that means an always-improving offering of learning opportunities. For the parents and families of those children, it means a welcoming and lasting relationship.

At Buttons and Bows Child Care, which Shelley operates in her Saint Paul home, the child care space is a feature, not an afterthought. A kidney table surrounded by toys fills the room where the magic happens. Her family knows that the child care is front and center all of the time, and that stepping on the occasional escaped toy is part of the deal. Shelley has been in the business nearly 25 years and has a very good grasp on what setup and flow work well for her.

One of the most convenient features of her house is a bathroom near the child care area. Just off the kitchen, the location is ideal for young children. A few years ago, Shelley decided to upgrade the small room. While the rest of her family was out of town, she re-did the bathroom to look like an outhouse—complete with a crescent moon mirror and twinkle lights on the ceiling. Shelley likes to quip, “It twinkles while they tinkle.”

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Another distinctive feature of Buttons and Bows is much more mobile than the bathroom. Luigi, a Golden Retriever-Labrador mix from the shelter, is never too far away. A child care dog is a fixture of Shelley’s program, and Luigi is a perfect fit. He’s very relaxed around kids, and they love him. Many children don’t have pets of their own at home. Shelley likes that Luigi’s presence helps them feel comfortable around dogs. It provides some parents cover for not getting a pet at home. However, when Shelley leaves town there is competition for who will take care of Luigi while she’s gone.

When it comes to supporting all areas of children’s development, Shelley brings creative and fun opportunities for enrichment to the children in her program. The Tumble Fun Bus comes every other week during the school year. The children enter an old school bus outfitted with pads and equipment. They follow the instructor for a half hour of active play that ends with a zipline into the ball pit.

Shelley also hires a musician who comes every other week for time with the children. Both of these activities offer the children a chance to listen to other adults. It also provides Shelley with a little break in her day to plan, organize, or just recharge. As a Three Star Parent Aware-rated program, Shelley uses her Quality Supports grant money to provide these opportunities. She would probably provide them anyway, but this helps her do more.

Another program that she loves is Minnesota Reading Corps. A reading tutor comes to her child care to work on literacy activities with the preschool-aged children. They practice writing their names, learning their letters, and singing about rhyming words. After a few years with the program, Shelley has taken on much of the curriculum. She’s amazed at how much the children learn and is convinced that adding in more literacy activities is essential.

When Shelley leads learning activities, she includes all the children. Even the toddlers and babies are soaking up what is going on around them. She knows that children will use words if you give them the opportunity and supports. They are so receptive. She recalled a time recently when they discussed the new word, “beneath”. For the next couple months, the children, their toys, and other objects were always “beneath”.

Seeing the children learn motivates Shelley to push herself even more. Her current goal is for the kids in her program to start kindergarten ready for first grade. She knows how to teach kids and believes they deserve to learn as much as they can. Preschool is happening in her family child care program, where the children have years of trust and relationships already established. Relationships are key to all the work that Shelley does, and they are clearly the motivation for her work. Family engagement is not a box she has to check or a strategy she has to implement. It comes naturally to her, is part of her identity. She says, “I love the families. I think they love me. They’ve actually become our family.” At several crucial moments in her life, including when her first husband died, her families have rallied around her and showed incredible support. She still spends times with the families of children she took care of years ago.