By: Marie Huey

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.

Serena Bowman (Left) and Christel Cartie, Co-Owners and Directors of Stepping Stones

Parents often ask sisters Serena Bowman and Christel Cartie, “Are you a preschool program?” The sisters confidently respond, “Yes.” Because Stepping Stones Childcare Learning Center, Inc is a high-quality, Four Star Parent Aware rated program where parents can be assured that their children receive the enrichment and educational opportunities they need to be school and life ready.

When Serena and Christel combined their entrepreneurial spirit with their passion for making a difference for children, the result was Stepping Stones. They noticed that many families in the area needed care for their children, and many specifically wanted a place that offered high-quality early education options. With a goal of providing a unique experience and taking high-quality care and education to the next level, they opened a child care center in 2008. That original Aitkin location no longer exists, but they now have three centers: in Brainerd, Baxter, and Pequot Lakes.

Serena previously owned a restaurant along with other past management and business experience, and Christel operated a licensed family child care program, as did their mom. Christel’s experience as a family child care provider and Serena’s business experience allowed them to see the possibilities in opening a center. An advantage of center-based care is that children of the same age are in a room together, and activities are designed specifically for that age.

Marshmallows, toothpicks, and Popsicle sticks are perfect for creative and fun learning.

Stepping Stones’ décor is an important feature of the program. The wood and wainscoting lends a homey “Up North” warmth that is perfectly suited to the area. Parents love the nurturing feel of Stepping Stones. The safe, secure locations include everything that kids need during the day—education, nurturing, and healthy meals cooked on site. Parents are surprised that even the youngest children acclimate to the routine that Stepping Stones follows. Many families carry this routine in to their weekend.

Stepping Stones uses the same research-based curriculum at all three sites, and the programming and schedules are generally consistent. The Pequot Lakes site has been chosen to be a pilot location by Parent Aware to receive additional behavior consultation.

Playing outside.

The skilled and passionate staff work hard to provide children with the care and education they need to succeed. When developing lesson plans, teachers intentionally guide children in fun activities. They tie together an activity with a developmental domain (such as physical, language, mathematics, social, and art). For instance, a teacher might count or sort blocks with a child to practice math concepts, or they might use the blocks to create a house for animals to encourage dramatic play, conversation, and new vocabulary. The Stepping Stones curriculum and goals for children are closely aligned with Minnesota’s Early Indicators of Progress and school standards. Children who attend Stepping Stones stand out in the early elementary years because of their preparation.

Expectations for children are necessarily different based on their ages.  For instance, teachers lead “circle time” for all three age groups: infants, toddlers,  and preschoolers. However, it looks different for each. Preschoolers sit for a longer period of time, while the younger children sit more briefly. To engage toddlers in the group time, teachers sing silly songs and include more sensory materials. The children might have objects in front of them to keep them engaged, for instance.

Children build with boxes.

Stepping Stones teaches sign language to infants. Parents are amazed at how well the babies pick it up. They also emphasize imagination and creativity. In June the children went camping. July was a trip to Disney World. The children at Stepping Stones are fortunate to take many “field trips” using their imaginations. They built the Disney castle out of boxes and pretended to visit a water park. The teachers support field trips inside the buildings and devote enough time to the theme to allow children to dig in and make it a rich experience.

An initial challenge for Stepping Stones was informing parents of the benefits of center-based child care. Many are familiar with family child care in the home, but centers are not as prevalent in the area. Many families have certainly caught on now. Even with a capacity for 32 infants at the Brainerd location alone and a daily average of 220 children across all sites, Stepping Stones has a waitlist, and infants are out a full year.