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Collaborating with Families: Examples from Parent Co-Op Programs

May 04, 2023    |   Early Learning Spaces & Routines

Parent cooperative preschools, often referred to as “parent co-ops” are early learning programs that are structured around family involvement. In parent co-ops, parents are involved in all aspects of the program, from caring for children, to preparing meals, leading activities, and even helping with some of the behind-the-scenes work that it takes to run a child care business. In this article, we share information about how parent co-ops work, and how you might incorporate co-op principles into your program’s family collaboration and engagement strategies. 

Where did the approach come from?

The first parent co-op was started in 1916 by a group of mothers whose spouses were attending the University of Chicago. The women wanted to create a space for their children to learn while they pursued their own volunteer interests. 

Today, there are parent co-ops all over the world – each with its own unique approach to early learning and education. Parent co-ops serve families with children from infancy to five years old, with some referring to their program a “parent participation program” or a “parent nursery school”. All of these co-ops view parent partnerships and collaborations as a key component of a high-quality early learning program.

What Does a Parent Co-Op Look Like?

While there are a wide variety of approaches to learning and curriculum development in parent co-op programs, most schools have the following features in common: 

  • Parents work alongside an ECE professional in the classroom. At the heart of parent co-ops is family involvement. However, parents are not the only ones who are working in the classrooms. An article from Wondershool explains that “Often, co-ops have directors or teaching staff who assist new parents in teaching children according to the program’s pedagogical practices and ensure health and safety guidelines are met.” The co-op’s ECE staff members take the lead in curriculum planning, structuring activities, and can help to educate parents about their children’s learning and development. This setup allows parents and educators to work together, collaborate, and form meaningful relationships, all of which are beneficial for children.

  • Low child-to-adult ratio. Because parents are actively involved in the classroom, there are often extra hands to help with caring for children. Having additional grown-ups in the classroom can be a source of support for educators caring for the children, and for children, who get more individualized attention from caregivers than they might receive in a traditional classroom. 

  • Play-based, individualized curriculum. Most parent co-ops use a child-directed and play-based approach to learning. This philosophy means that children get to lead the way through exploration. For example, the website of Santa Clara Nursery School, a local parent co-op, describes its program philosophy this way: “We believe that children learn through play and from first-hand experience. Your child knows what she/he is ready to learn, and she/he will choose activities that are suitable for her/him. The school environment allows for this free choice by providing a wide variety of cognitive, social and large and small muscle activities so that children can progress at their own rate of development.”

  • Parent education opportunities. In a Parents Press blog post, Cristy Baty, a parent whose child attends a co-op preschool, notes that “Most co-op preschools have a component of educating parents on early childhood development– a key difference from standard preschools. The parent education is usually provided by the school’s director…to discuss topics such as developmental stages and maturity, effective discipline, nutrition, enrichment, encouraging independence, and constructive socialization.”

How to Incorporate Parent Co-Op Principles into Your Program

Invite Parent Involvement

One of the most important benefits of a parent co-op is that parents get to be involved in their children’s learning and education. This partnership between educators and parents helps to build a strong connection between school and home, which ultimately supports the development and growth of children. 

In your program, think about opportunities for parents to become more involved in your curriculum. You might consider having a different parent come in each week to read a story to the class. Or, you could ask parents if they have any special skills like painting, dancing, or playing an instrument that they might want to share with the children. Let parents know that they are welcome to be a part of the classroom! 

Provide Parent Education

The parent education component of co-ops is especially valuable to parents and family members who might be interested in learning more about how to best support their child’s development. You can apply this approach to your program by considering ways in which you might be able to share information and resources that will help educate parents about their child’s learning and growth. You might even host your own parent development night and invite a guest speaker to visit your center to talk about a topic of interest, such as behavioral challenges or positive parenting. 

Create Opportunities for Parent Socialization

One of the aspects of co-op preschools that many parents enjoy is the opportunity to meet and spend time with other parents. This socialization creates a sense of community and helps parents connect with other families with whom they can share information and form friendships. 

What opportunities do you currently provide for parents to connect with and get to know one another through your ECE program? You might host regularly scheduled family-friendly events, or invite parents to join in for snack time or storytime when their schedule allows. If you’d like some inspiration and ideas for creating family connections, visit this G2K article from the archives: Hosting Community-Building Events for Families.

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