By Justine Hufford 

Two months after early learning experts, partners, and policymakers across California convened in the state’s capitol for the 8th Annual Early Learning Water Cooler Conference, I’m still digesting what I learned from the conference and putting it to use in my work. The conference was packed with information about early learning developments, challenges, and visions for the future, and I walked away feeling inspired and motivated to continue to work towards creating an inclusive and accessible high-quality early learning system in California.

The overarching theme of the conference can be captured in one word: Architecture. From the architecture of learning to the architecture of systems, the emphasis of the conference in many ways emulated the ultimate vision of early learning: laying the foundation to promote opportunity, success, and lifelong learning for all children.

Architecture of Learning: Brain Development & Fundamentals of Early Learning

Presentations given by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, Co-Director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, emphasized the critical importance of quality early learning environments that support biological responses and counteract social inequities. All children are born to learn; their brains are hypersensitive to and hungry for experiences and interaction. Frequent human interaction and engaging experiences are the building blocks of early learning, and are essential pieces of supportive early environments. On the flip side, environments devoid of these elements can create chronic stress that inhibits brain development, reduces executive functioning, and leads to lifelong adverse outcomes.

Key Take-Away: The more we learn about what healthy environments that support learning and brain development look like, the more we need to build these elements of quality into in our early childhood education settings. This can be achieved by placing a targeted focus on interventions to prevent chronic stress and understimulation and to counteract their adverse outcomes.

Architecture of Systems: Cohesion & Alignment

Sessions throughout the course of the conference highlighted the crucial and pertinent need to transform a siloed educational system into a rich, quality educational continuum. This means building a cohesive and aligned system both within early learning and across the greater educational spectrum by including health services, family engagement supports, workforce development, and by connecting all of this with the K-12 system. Speakers and panelists spoke to the current state of the educational system as disjointed and fragmented, with limited accountability to ensure continuity of quality supports and services from early childhood education through K-12 and beyond.

Key Take-Away: To ensure an inclusive, high quality educational system for all children, we need to engage in partnership and systems building to align supports and services horizontally and vertically. Furthermore, early learning leaders, experts, and stakeholders must advocate for sustainable and supportive policies and investments to build and fund this system.

Achieving the vision of an aligned, comprehensive, and high quality early learning system will not be without its challenges. But the Water Cooler Conference reinforced what I’ve already learned through my work at VIVA—that through strengthening partnerships, advocating for our collective vision, and ensuring that early education settings foster optimal brain development, we have an opportunity to create an incredible system to support the most formative years of child development and transform the lives of children, families, and communities.