An Insider Look at Early Learning in Manhattan

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“We are filling the gap for parents looking for early learning opportunities in a very dense, urban city”.

Daniel Koffler of Explore and Discover started out by questioning why, in Manhattan, there are persistent conversations about pregnancy and new parenthood, and about preschool admissions (as a future predictor of success in K-12), but not dedicated attention on high-quality infant and toddler programs?

Koffler approaches childcare the way CEOs build tech startups; with a nuanced program focus, by identifying gaps in the market, offering professional development and specialized talen t recruitment for his team, and by offering unique holistic early education practices, all of which allow his center to fill a gap in Manhattan childcare. Explore and Discover focuses on high-quality early childhood education specifically for children aged zero to three (“starting from the 91st day”). Listen to Koffler describe the importance of his staff and their dedication and enjoyment of their roles. “You have to find purpose in your work and make the environment the most meaningful to you”. The team who works with Explore and Discover are passionate about working with children. “You have to really enjoy seeing a child experience the world. Each teacher here shares the excitement of watching children grow and develop”.

Explore and Discover makes strong use of Reggio-Emilia approaches and the RIE program (Resources for Infant Educare). RIE allows the team to approach everyday tactics in a thoughtful and caring approach. Is there a thoughtful way to carry out infant diaper changes that respects the whole personality of an infant? Koffler says yes. “I can’t teach someone to have empathy with working with infant and toddlers. That is in your core”.

Resources in this episode:

HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #79 – Daniel Koffler

Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Jan. 25, 2018


You know, it’s interesting. It’s one of the challenges I think that the early-childhood environment faces, that you don’t see the outcomes of these different approaches until much later. And I think it’s very hectic, having children in the city or otherwise, a child or children. So people I think that have traditionally just tended to say, “Well, you know, my office provides this kind of childcare option,” or, “Oh, you know, this nanny is available and it’s convenient,” without kind of taking into account the value of one environment to the next.


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”. Daniel, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.


Thanks for having me.


So Daniel, you’re the co-founder of Explore and Discover Early Learning Centre, which is in New York. Can you tell us about why you started Explore and Discover Early Learning, and how you got involved in early-childhood education?


I’m not sure that I had much of a choice. Everyone’s got a choice. I was born into this, in some respects. My mother is a speech pathologist by training, and in the early 80’s – around the time I was born – my father was watching her grow her practice and thought, “How can I help her get this to the next stage?” and learned about ways in which funding is available to bring clinical services and academic services under one roof. The state of New York in particular will fund that as an outsource from the city and state who don’t necessarily have the capability to provide those services to that population.

And so what the school at the time – they built a school, is what they did. It’s called Sunshine Developmental School. We’ve operated it for all these years; we still do, as a family. And the schools serve the population of students ages 3 to 5 with a range of developmental disabilities.

And so jumping to that to answer the question [of] how did we get into this: We learned a lot about both special education and early-childhood and running that program, and we still learn more every day. We made a conscious decision at some point in our journey to focus on the private sector of early-childhood programming and general education in particular. And that is how we got involved with Explore [and] Discover. Over the years from the from those early days through about four or five years ago, we’ve built and operated a variety of schools, both early-childhood and K12, special education, general education, private pay-funded. So the whole realm.

And over the last five years or so we began selling off a number of the schools that we had built. They still exist in New York. In one case I have a child who goes to one of them, which is pretty exciting. But we looked around and said. “There’s a lot of conversation around – in New York City, in particular, but I think the same in many of the major cities – around preschool admissions and what that means both for the prospects of a child, of a family’s future prospects when it comes to getting the right K12 environment and college and beyond, which I will tell you personally I don’t necessarily put a lot of stock into. I think that that’s a little overblown. But there is a high premium put on what where your child goes to for a variety of reasons.

And there’s also, rightly so, a lot of conversation around pregnancy, especially when it’s an individual’s first child, and what does that mean? But what we found was with all that conversation on both sides of the [age] zero-to-three range, there wasn’t a lot of conversation around what happens with the infant. And we started doing some research and seeing there’s not a whole lot of high-quality daycare environments in New York, which probably suggested not a whole lot of them in general. Daycare has been perceived I think traditionally as an important piece of the equation. But I think in a lot of people’s minds, in New York in particular, it’s a necessary evil. They’d rather a nanny if possible. And there’s validity to that in some cases.

But the idea that the daycare, kind of to me, when we did our homework, started having a four-letter-word connotation, which I thought was really inappropriate considering there’s so many people out there who are experts, who spend their life dedicated to the field. And the value that a social environment can offer a young child, we thought, “Well, why not focus our efforts on that?” So after selling our schools we’ve begun to refocus our efforts on Explore Discover and then building out that… we have currently one location right now in New York and we have expectations and plans to grow it out to many more locations over the years.


So what age groups are you currently serving in that center, then?


So we see primarily zero-to-three. So three months is when we begin to onboard students. So essentially the 90 first days, because in New York traditionally you’re given three months of maternity leave when you have a young child. So it’s from zero-to-three, although we have some students that go a little older.


And that is quite unique to your point, because a lot of preschool programs really focus on three-to-five, let’s say, or at least that’s a higher proportion of their total enrollment versus the infant age group which though to your point there is a big gap, I think. And so that’s pretty interesting. What else is unique about Explore and Discover Early Learning? Do you have special approach to how you do things, or do you do things differently than other places? Any philosophies you have in place?


Absolutely. So a couple of things: We take pride, just as the owners and operators, in terms of the facility that we can lend our experience to helping to design and create. So we’d like to have the most beautiful space we can possibly have. Certainly it’s eye-catching for parents who are considering the center, but also we employ… we’re a Reggio-based program, so certainly the environment is a big part of the teaching component and the experience the children have in the school. Environment is critical for us.

The teachers we have are incredible, incredible staff. The number one, two and three most important things I would say in our school, certainly for us as operators, and I hope for anybody who’s in this business… people are everything. And in the case of early-childhood the people who come to work with us and come to build our community out are the ones who in many cases have opportunities to work in preschool environments where you might have more opportunities and provocations with children. There’s a little more feedback from the children. There [are] different hours – hours are not as demanding as they are in our environment. But these people, our staff, really just by showing up – certainly they do more than show up – it’s incredible, how they are on their feet, mentally and physically and emotionally, all day long. They bring to the table something that is unusual, and as a parent I try my hardest to bring it back to the home. I do not do anywhere near as good a job, if a decent job at all, in terms of mimicking the learning that I take home from the staff. So staff is critical. Staff has a really big thing for us.

And then in New York City, in particular, we have an outdoor space. That’s an unusual component of the facility, so that’s a big deal as well. And the last thing is, philosophy – I mentioned Reggio – is an important component of our philosophy, which weave that into our space design and our professional development. And I would say that it’s incorporated throughout the school, that we lean more heavily on it for the older children.

With the younger children, the youngest and the infants in particular, we employ an approach that’s called “RIE” for shorthand: Resources for Infant Edu-care. I had not heard of it until we got involved in this program. Some of our incredible staff brought it to my attention, and we built programming around that. It essentially… not to butcher it or to lessen this for any RIE practitioners out there listening – but essentially speaks to a concept of respect for babies. The idea that babies, just because they can’t communicate the way that you and I are communicating, doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings and emotions and opinions and should be treated as such.

So as an example, what you find in most environments is the child… the time has come for the child to have a diaper change and the child’s diaper gets changed. It’s not much of a conversation with the child, nor is there a vote on the child’s part. In Explore [and] Discover, it’s a little more of a respectful conversation. Even the child might not want a diaper change but they might need one. But the idea is, “Chloe, I think you meant you need a diaper change. Are you ready for a diaper change?” Before you grab a child and start to put them on a table and go through this event, there’s a more intimate way to go about it.

And what we find is that not only is that is a more thoughtful way to approach children, but the research demonstrates that it leads to a much better outcome for the children, longer term, which I think is one of the challenges I think that the early-childhood environment faces, that you don’t see the outcomes of these different approaches until much later. And I think it’s very hectic, having children in the city or otherwise, a child or children. So people I think that have traditionally just tended to say, “Well, you know, my office provides this kind of childcare option,” or, “Oh, you know, this nanny is available and it’s convenient,” without kind of taking into account the same way that they might [with] high school selection, or a preschool selection, even, the value of one environment to the next. And “environment” speaking both to the physical planet and the staff and whole programming itself.


Yeah, that’s a really good point, about not being able to see a lot of the outcomes immediately, and especially in today’s world where most people are seeking some type of immediate positive response or reaction to their actions. That is certainly a challenge. I just wanted to touch a little bit more on your points about staff and having very incredible staff who are engaged – and this topic that I’m very passionate about, and I think probably related to your philosophy where the early-childhood educators do have to go a bit more above-and-beyond with the various practices that you’re implementing at Explore and Discover. So can you tell us a little bit about how you attract and retain such engaged early-educators in your programs?


It’s interesting, I just got done reading an article from the Harvard Business Review [about] finding meaning in your work, and how it gives an example of, you could have a guy who is essentially running a hedge fund or something that falls into that category of the perception of big money and hence big happiness, whereas you can have a guy who cleans the sludge out of the subway in New York City and somehow they’re super-happy and the hedge fund guy is not happy with themselves, and how is that possible if everything is so driven in our environment and our world around work and productivity in that kind of thing?

And I think that… it’s a high-minded concept, but I think it boils down to you have to make the environment. You have to find meaning and purpose in your work. I think that a lot of the folks who work with us – our community, our staff at Explore ad Discover – view it that way. They certainly are interested in working with children. Many of them, if not all of them, come from backgrounds either academically or professionally where they’re working with children, so they’re interested in children. And they enjoy what I think others would find very frustrating about working with children, which is in-and-of itself incredible thing.

Today we’re lucky enough that – we still put our feelers out there, we look at all the best schools in the city and beyond – we also have a decent network of folks who have been working with us for some time who are able to tap their networks. So we’re able to find a decent flow of staff, which… we don’t have super-high turnover, but it is a challenging environment. It’s not unusual to have some degree of turnover in the early-childhood space. But I think that the people… the bottom line, and I might be oversimplifying it, but I think that the folks who work with us, the interest in working with children is their passion.

So they enjoy the work, they enjoy… you have to really enjoy watching a young child look at their hand, or just understand that something in their brain is sending a signal to their finger to bend it, and that that bending of the finger can lead to this, that and the third. That is, I think, an incredible process, to watch a young child develop. All of our teachers, I would say, share that kind of excitement with that process. And that’s just one example.

But I think it’s about purpose. I think we try to find folks who find beyond just the showing up for work type of experiences. It’s more about purpose in the work. We provide professional development opportunities with regularity. We support our staff as much as we possibly can. So all those kind of things that are best practice we certainly employ in our work, but at the end of the day I can’t teach someone to have an empathy and a patience to work with a population of children, infants and toddlers. You have to kind of have that in some capacity before they come to us. We can certainly teach RIE and Reggio, and of course our staff brings with them tons of experience from their other experiences and we take the best practices from all the different worlds to create what we hope is the best work environment and the best experience for families and students.


And I suspect also that these philosophies you follow with being Reggio-based and your RIE philosophy also attracts early-childhood educators who want to be challenged and sort of go above-and-beyond. If you take your diaper-changing story as an example, that’s quite different than the way most centres would do it. So perhaps you’re also attracting really talented educators who are up for that challenge and doing things a bit differently, and something that might take a bit more effort both mentally and physically, versus what you might call more traditional daycare.


I think that’s a very fair assumption. I know for a fact that it’s true that there are definitely folks who come to us because of the approach we take. Their training lines up very nicely with the approach we take. I think that it’s one thing to train for this kind of thing in school; it’s another thing to apply it in practice. And I think that there’s probably more opportunity to train in these modalities than there is to practice it on a day-to-day basis. And of course we you know we take pride in being amongst the few centres that, to my knowledge, can offer that opportunity.


Cool. So I just want to circle back to something you talked about before, which is the fact that you saw a gap in the childcare early-learning space when it came to infants and perhaps even more generally in early-childhood learning opportunities. And you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world – New York City – and there’s a lack of childcare and early-education opportunities for parents. So we can only imagine, as you said, outside of New York City that those gaps must exist as well. But it’s not every day we talk to somebody who’s in such an urban environment. Is there anything that you think is unique about operating an early-learning centre in a place like Manhattan?


Well, in the absence of knowing what it’s like to run a center outside of Manhattan, I can tell you that it comes as its own challenges and opportunities. I mean it’s certainly a very dense city, so there’s a lot of people here. There’s also a lot of options. So when I say that there has been a lacking in early-childhood opportunities, what I really mean is in high-quality, really good opportunities and in particular I mean infant and toddler.

So there are plenty, there’s dozens and dozens of daycare centres, there’s dozens and dozens of preschools. What I generally tend to find is that most of the centers that I see – and this is probably accurate beyond just New York City – tend to focus on a period of zero-to-five age range, which is totally fine. And I understand why – we’ve done it before and we may very well again. But what we like about this as compared to those other examples is generally speaking – it’s a major generalization but I’ll make it for the sake of the argument – centres that focus on zero-to-five, from my experience, tend to have a more heavy focus on the preschool aspect with the early-childhood component being more of an accommodation for families with younger children. It’s a place for your child to be, a way for them to kind of gain some exposure to things. And it’s not a bad thing. But it’s not as nuanced as we would take it.

So for example, the furniture you might have in a centre that serves zero-to-five, you might have the same furniture throughout the school, which would make sense in some regards. But when it comes to the physical development of a young child, if they’re sitting in a chair that’s too tall for their feet to touch the ground, that has a negative effect. The ability to sit down to be able to apply pressure on the ground and find focus, all these different things are connected.

We kind of look at that as a very narrow example, and there’s many more they say, “Well, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to give these young children their own environment, give them their own space, develop at their own pace?” We actually break down infants and toddlers beyond just zero-to-three. We have a couple of specific age groups within that that breakdown that focus on mobility. So you have children who are on their bellies – the youngest children are starting on the bellies. Then they’re able to kind of crawl up and move around a little bit supported. Then they can start walking; then they can start running. So we try to separate the groups the age groups that we offer for at Explore and Discover based on those different stages, because a child who’s running, there’s potential safety issues [with] the child’s who’s running versus the child on their belly and can’t defend themselves – god forbid they’d get stepped on by an unsuspecting young child.

I don’t know that that sort of thing goes on in other parts of the country or the world. But I do find that New York families are discerning. It’s not merely about, “What’s the most practical? What’s the most available?” It’s about, “If I’m a two-parent working household in New York City,” they may be considered by any standard a higher-earning family. That doesn’t mean that they have every option in the world but it does mean that they need something. If both parents are going to be working you need something for this, for your child. And the options that I’ve come to are: You can quit your job; you can hire a nanny; or you can find a centre.

And each of those has pros and cons, but focusing on the centre piece: There are centres that fit the need requirement, but they might not fit the want requirement. So we try to bridge that gap, or at least fill that secondary component where certainly we’re checking all the boxes. You know we’re Department of Health-regulated; we meet safety requirements, ratios all that kind of thing. That’s before we open our eyes in the morning.

Then it’s about how high a quality program can offer folks and help them understand what the difference is. Because it’s a big city and there are a lot of options it can become very disorienting to be able to suss out what the differences are from one to the next. So instead of trying to point out what we do, what other folks do, etc., it’s more about we know broadly what the industry offers, and we know what our neighbors offer etc. We try to build our program around what we see is gaps in the market and highlight those as the offering.


Yeah, and I think that’s a challenge for everybody that’s working in early-childhood education, is to educate families on what quality early-learning is, in the fact that it’s available even at the infant age when most families will default to the most convenient childcare option. I think we need to challenge them and educate them on what their options are when it comes to quality early learning, even at such an early age. So I think that’s really cool that you guys have that focus, and to your points I think you can really provide a higher-quality experience because you are so focused on that age group. And I would agree that a lot of other programs that have a wider age range… any time you have a broader scope of focus you’re going to not be able to deliver the same quality across each age group as easily. So that’s a really unique model, and perhaps also available to you with that high density, there in Manhattan.

So that’s really interesting that you came upon that, and then also as a entrepreneur, edu-preneur – an entrepreneur working in education – actually actioned and took the steps to open Explore and Discover Early Learning Centre and provide that opportunity to families. So thank you for doing that, Daniel. And thank you for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today. It’s been awesome having you on the show.


I really appreciate the time and the opportunity. And I hope that we have an opportunity again in the future.


Awesome. Daniel, just before we finish up here: If people want to find out more about Explore and Discover Early Learning Centre or get in touch with you, where’s the best place for them to go?


You can visit our website: You can e-mail me directly, feel free: I’m also on LinkedIn, and Explore and Discover is on Facebook and all kinds of social media platforms. And if you’re ever in New York we’re happy to have you with us – we love to show our school off. We’d love to have you in and show you around and talk.


Awesome. Thanks again for coming on the show today, Daniel.


Thank you again. Be well.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.