Women in Early Childhood Education: My Interview With Play & Grow Founder Karen Whittier by Mike Prochaska

Women in Early Childhood Education: My Interview With Play & Grow Founder Karen Whittier

Karen Whittier, aka Teacher Karen, is not only an Early Childhood professional, founder of Play and Grow and 30Seconds contributor, but an advocate for play and recess. She lives in Sammamish, Wash., and is passionate about teaching young children. 

Q. How did you get into the Early Childhood Education (ECE) field?

“My interest in teaching was reignited when my children were in preschool. I loved preschoolers’ energy; their zest for LIFE; their curiosity; how they want to learn about everything; all their questions; their openness and honesty. So, I went back to school myself for an Early Childhood Education degree and opened, at the time, a school that was unique in that it was on a farm and kidlets were able to interact with the farm animals daily as well as spend time outside every day. The emphasis was hands-on PLAY with a lot of loose parts and a goal of having a messy, dirty kidlet to send home at the end of class.”

Q. Having worked in engineering before ECE, what did you experience or feel being the minority?

“Wow, pretty much everything. Where to start? I was called every name imaginable. I was accused of taking away the job of a man that could be supporting a family (apparently it didn't occur to them that I may need to support a family at some time). When I became engaged, some wondered 'aloud' about my future husband, "Why would he want to marry a dike? He must be a homo or something.

"I would have to go into the mill often, initially I would just put on a hard hat, steel-toed boots and coat over whatever I'd worn into the office. Incredibly, there were disgusting men who would position themselves under the stairs and/or overhead, grated walkways – this is something that would never have occurred to me – but I was grateful to the one grandpa-type coworker who took me aside and told me to change out of any skirt (mind you, below the knee length) into overalls before going into the mill as these jerks were trying to look up my skirt. 

"I had pornographic photos left anonymously on my desk. I had a man grab my bum in a large group meeting, when I took hold of his wrist and pulled it away and spoke loudly to not touch me – in front of everyone. No one said anything or came to my defense at the time, but my boss may have said something to him later as the information he was supposed to give me for my reports stopped coming. Speaking of my boss, any and every time I came into his office all work talk stopped and turned to either what his son was doing (who was near my age) and/or family matters. Sigh.” 

Q. What’s your favorite memory working with kids?

“Oh, goodness! I have so many. One, though, is about a 3-year-old little gal and a handful of 3-year-old little boys. We were playing outside and the group of boys were playing up in the fort chanting about some boys-only party they were having: ‘NO GIRLS allowed!’ Well, if they'd actually been thinking they'd have known this was ridiculous because at our school if there was room then anyone was allowed to come in, but rather than butt in, we decided to see how this was going to play out. 

"The little gal, as it turned out, hadn't heard the boys' no girls policy – all she saw was a good time happening. So, she climbed up and was still on the suspension bridge when the boys belted out their refrain again. She stopped, leveled her gaze at them and bent over to pick up a toy truck. In her raspy voice, she delivered a line I'll never forget: "Party's over boys." The look on the boys' faces was hilarious – one of pure shock and terror and they quickly invited her into the party!”

Q. What is your favorite book to read to the classroom? 

“That probably changed every year! Currently I'm enjoying 'The Three Little Rigs' – a fun take on ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ and also brings me full circle back to a steel mill!”

Q. Why is play important for children?

“PLAY matters in childhood. It is not only the natural way they are meant to learn, but also the holistic way, giving them context for their learning plus addressing all areas of their development as well as laying a firm foundation for further learning. PLAY should not be curtailed but championed!"

Q. Why is recess and outside play important?

“We all are impacted by our own mind-body connection – that our thoughts, feelings and/or attitudes can positively or negatively affect how our body functions. The reverse is true – moving our body not only improves cardiovascular health, it improves cerebrovascular health improving brain function, structure and connectivity. Moving and using our bodies boosts our moods, increases our creativity and productivity and it's just plain FUN! 

"Studies have shown being outside makes our bodies and brains healthier! Schools that have reduced and/or cut recess time to have 'more instructional time' in an effort to increase test scores are ignoring clear results from repeated studies.”

Q. Anything inspiring to tell anyone thinking of going into this field?

“Unfortunately in the U.S., ECE still isn't a field that's valued or given much respect because if it was there'd be higher qualifications required and higher pay and/or benefits. With that said, there are experiences that don't have monetary value – that are priceless and working with children, seeing them light up in excitement and/or with understanding – sharing in their growing and learning is one for me. All of the kiddos and their families that I've had over the years are still in my heart. I been able to stay connected to many and I love seeing them grow into tweens, teens, young adults and, in some cases, parents themselves.”

Q. I see you rent toys. Why would I want to rent toys when I can buy them? 

“There are many reasons it makes sense to rent toys over buying them. Many people, like me, are concerned about the environment – take a moment and look at all the packaging involved with purchased toys. Renting toys saves packaging from being tossed into landfills. In addition to packaging, renting saves old toys from being tossed into landfills because, just as children grow out of clothes and shoes quickly, they grow out of toys, too! 

"Another reason renting could be a better choice is for families that choose to live a minimalist lifestyle – those who want to give their children experiences but not necessarily 'stuff.' Yet another motivation for choosing to rent is just the type of home families live in – a lot of homes don't have a lot of storage space – so why fill up what little space there is with toys? Renting just makes sense all around."

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#30Seconds In-Depth: Bring on Spring & Bring on Play With Childhood Educator Teacher Karen!

Elisa Schmitz
You are a rock star, Teacher Karen ! Great interview, Mike Prochaska ! 👍

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