Local woman goes back to basics with childcare


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Twenty-eight barefoot, ant-collecting kids scatter across the enchanted backyard of the Mary Jo Small Childcare Center, where one Iocal woman ensures imaginations soar every day.

“Everybody jump on the dino train,” one child yelled.

Immediately, four kids scrambled onto a row of green plastic chairs with a Cookie Monster chair acting as the engine.

This is what Sharon McDonald lives for.

“I’m a big believer that dirty kids are happy kids,” she said. “This place is a slice of old school.”

She compared the feeling of the backyard to spending summers at the lake, when the sun is shining and people are happy. It helps that the entire backyard is one enormous sandbox.

“It’s like you can almost hear the lake,” McDonald said.

What you can hear at 309 Melrose Ave. are the sounds of children at play. The giggles alone would overshadow a boat engine or water splashing.

McDonald started at Mary Jo Small Child Care Center, formerly known as Brookland Woods Childcare Center, in 1987 when the daycare was lacking a director and revenue and was six weeks away from closing.

Driven to have a job that would enable her to be with her kids, McDonald worked hard to keep the center alive. And even though her own children are grown up, she shares her maternal love with every munchkin that walks through the brightly painted gate on Melrose Avenue.

When McDonald took over, she wanted to “change the paradigm,” and a daycare that once focused on corralling kids and forcing activities is now based entirely on play.

She said she is scared that childhood is morphing into a micromanaged world with toys that require curriculum. Instead, she said, she wants to provide a place where kids can run around and express their creativity.

“Kids’ brains are very different from adults’,” she said. “Think about the immense abstractness of what they’re learning.”

McDonald said she never thought preschool was necessary.

“If you need to know your colors, play Candyland,” she said.

Even though the focus of her childcare center is fun and socialization, the staff understands that kids work better with a schedule. Play time, lunch time, nap time, and snack time are signaled by a bell.

The children aren’t forced to eat — the only requirement is to come in, wash their hands, and sit down. Nap time has the same requirement, but McDonald said she never has a kid who isn’t tired from running around outside.

“I give everybody a hug, tuck, cuddle, and a kiss,” she said. “Then I sing ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and read *Horton Hears a Who* from memory.”

Parents have even asked for a recording of her hypnotic routine.

University of Iowa Assistant Professor Pam Wesley sends her two children to the daycare.

“The place is truly child-centered,” she said. “There are traditions, but kids get to do what they want and explore different things that they are interested in.”

With capacity for 28 children, the daycare requires a 6-1 ratio between kids and staff. McDonald, who hires only work-study students , said most of them stay for four or five years.

Nikki Buresh, who graduated in December with a speech and hearing science degree, has worked at the center for three years. She said she tries to incorporate learning while she’s playing with the kids.

“Can you imagine being 5 and having all of this?” Buresh said.

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