With the government just days away from a potential shutdown amid the budget crisis, members of Congress took a playful approach to defending early childhood education, which has been targeted during past spending cuts. On the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning, a handful of Senators played a giant game of chutes and ladders with parents, kids, and advocates for early learning.
The National Women’s Law Center partnered with MomsRising, an advocacy group for women and families, and other children’s organizations to bring moms, kids, and leaders together over the game. The ladders on the oversized board detailed the benefits of receiving an early education, the chutes showed how not receiving one can set a child back for life.
Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Calif.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and other Congress members stopped by, chatted, and played throughout the morning.
Senator Harkin, who serves as chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or the HELP committee, addressed the crowd as small children tossed around hoola-hoops at his feet.
“Directing resources to high-quality early-childhood education will save us billions in future spending on remedial education, criminal justice, health and welfare programs, and is one of the most effective ways to set children up for a lifetime of learning and success,” Harkin later told TIME via email. “Even in times of fiscal restraint, investing in early-childhood learning is critical, and doing so will pay off for years to come”
Earlier in the morning, the HELP committee unanimously passed a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act for the first time since 1996. The bill expands access to and improves the quality of childcare for low-income kids, though its fate is uncertain. Both houses of Congress have attempted to reauthorize the Block Grant Act four times in the past to no avail.
Sen. Gillibrand told 3-year-old Mercedes, who she held on her hip while addressing the crowd, “This bill is for you.” The young student goes to Martha’s Table, a community center for the impoverished in northwest D.C., for pre-school. Two teachers from Martha’s Table brought Mercedes and six of her classmates to the event.
Advocates of the HELP bill were out in force at the event, showing support for those who voted in favor and mobilizing to lobby other Senators. After the game, the families and advocates split into groups and delivered copies of a book with more stories on the importance of early learning to the offices of over 25 Senators.
“I hear from moms everyday about their struggles with gaining access to early childhood learning opportunities,” said Kristin Rowe-Flinkbeiner, the executive director of MomsRising, one of the event’s lead organizers. “Today we’re bringing the voices of moms directly to leaders.”
“There’s no such thing as affordable day care anymore,” said Bethany Dalton, a mother of two toddlers, 4-year-old Riley and 1-year-old Mason. Dalton started taking classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, N.C. this fall, and relies on the state vouchers to pay for her children’s day care and pre-school, which she couldn’t afford on her $10/hour salary as a restaurant manager.
The majority of kids receiving an early education attend private centers and schools, which can be as costly as college tuition. The average annual cost of full-time child-care for a 4-year-old ranges from $3,900 to $11,700 depending on your state; in North Carolina the average cost is $7,774, according to Child Care Aware America’s 2012 Parent’s and the High Cost of Child Care report.
Only about 28% of 4-year-olds attended state-funded preschool programs in 2012, the Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reports. Early childhood education, advocates say, not only benefits a child’s intellectual development, social skills, it has an impact on the rest of their lives.
“Children who attend quality early childhood programs are more likely to become successful adults,” Helen Blank, the director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center told TIME. “It’s hard to close gaps if all children don’t have access.”