Just as Becky DelVecchio launched her research project for her doctoral thesis, the world shut down due to COVID-19.
She had originally planned to do an ethnographic study on the psychologically restorative benefits of nature play for children and families by embedding in a nature program to study the lived experiences of children, educators and families as they move through the program. That became impossible when COVID-19 health and safety restrictions forced the closure of ECE programs across the state. For months after reopening, most programs prohibited visitors to their centers and schools.
She instead adapted her project to a mixed-methods study, which included a quantitative online survey directed at caregivers of 3-4-year-olds in Greater Boston, followed by qualitative interviews with a sample of the respondents.
DelVecchio was pleased to receive 173 completed surveys, given the pressures parents were under, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “I was really thankful and just continue to be thankful to all the families who contributed to my research,” she said.
She found that children who had less time in nature during the pandemic were those who relied on public access to natural spaces, such as public parks and local nature preserves, many of which closed down. Those who experienced increases in their exposure to the outdoors were essentially children who lived in places that had backyards or easy access to nearby nature. In other words, children from families with more resources were more likely to increase their exposure to nature than those with fewer resources.
“So my research, like lots of other research that happened during the pandemic, shines a light on the inequities facing children and families from historically marginalized communities,” said DelVecchio.
She also observed an overall shift in the way families perceived nature play. Where it was once simply another way to play, as children’s activities became more restricted because of the pandemic, nature play became a source of stress relief and psychological restoration for children and their families.
“It felt really important for me to dig down deep and see what families were experiencing,” DelVecchio said. “I think I was able to do that.”
DelVecchio’s journey from preschool teacher to Ph.D. wasn’t something she envisioned for herself until she enrolled in our Post-Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice (PMC) program. She had been solely focused on teaching for most of her career, including in classrooms at a Head Start program and a special education preschool. Most recently, she taught at the Laboratory Preschool at Wellesley College. When the school’s director retired unexpectedly, DelVecchio was asked to step into the role, which she reluctantly agreed to.
“I felt sort of pressured into it,” she said. “It was, ‘Either you do it, or we find somebody else in a big hurry’ So I said okay, I’ll do it. But I want to get back to my classroom when we find somebody that I like.”
Around that time, she enrolled in the PMC program with the goal of developing the skills she needed to be effective in her new leadership role. Among the things she learned was that two decades in the classroom had already given her much of the expertise she needed.
“I just didn’t see myself as a leader before I met Anne [Douglass, professor and executive director of the Leadership Institute). She said, ‘You’re a leader, you’ve been leading for 20 years. You just have to decide how you want to exercise your leadership muscle.’ The PMC program definitely changed the whole trajectory of my life and my career, for sure. I saw myself in a completely different way.”
As she threw herself into her PMC coursework, her confidence and her interest in pursuing her education only grew. “I felt that I had to keep going because I can lead, and if I can lead, I have a responsibility to the field to lead,” said DelVecchio.
Having earned her doctorate, DelVecchio now teaches courses at UMass Boston, Quincy College and Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, NH, in addition to her duties as a research assistant and helping to manage the StrongStart Professional Development Centers grant for the Early Ed Leadership Institute. She’s also working to get her doctoral dissertation published in a peer-reviewed journal.
And while she taught preschool at a summer camp earlier this year, DelVecchio said she’s ready to leave the preschool classroom. Although she intends to stay in the early education field, her focus has “zoomed out” from working exclusively with children and families to focusing on “children and families and teachers, and readers, and college students.”
She’s hopeful that advanced degrees in the field of early education will become the norm for practitioners looking to expand their skills and knowledge base, or scholars looking to advance the field and educate future generations of early education leaders.
“I want preschool teachers to say, ‘Absolutely, yes, I’m going to be doing a P.h.D. at some point,’” said DelVecchio. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, you’re a preschool teacher with a P.h.D.? Wow.’ It should just be the next step. No one is surprised when a doctor, a lawyer, or a professor has a terminal degree, and I don’t see early educators as any different.”