How these artists created a sustainable childcare alternative that gave kids confidence and wonder
'The whole city became our playground' — and grew to serve 45 families in the process
In 2010, my band Hooded Fang began our foray into the music industry, releasing our first full-length album. It had been a few years since I finished my master's degree in teaching, and after doing 22 consecutive years of full-time schooling, I couldn't bring myself to work full-time in an educational institution. Finally free of academic responsibility, I wanted to play in a band and needed a job to supplement this irrational desire to rock. I needed something that was lucrative but flexible. A lot of my other peers were in a similar circumstance: chasing their creative dreams but needing a way to pay rent.
This same year, a neighbourhood mom, Anna, was in need of childcare and invited me to run a home daycare from her house. It was unusual to hear, but she genuinely wanted to know what my ideal working conditions were. I told her that I wanted to make $20 an hour, to work three days a week and for my two other artist friends to work the other two days that I wasn't. She happily agreed to my terms — and an alternative system for working, learning and caring was born.
Kindergarten was still operating on a half-day cycle, so I spent 11:30am to 5:30pm with five 5-year-olds. Anna donated use of her residence as our home base, which kept operation costs really low and kept playschool fees comparable to other daycares. This model basically created affordable space, and maximized use of a place that was empty for the entire working day. Nevertheless, in order to meet the kids' interests — and to curb my own boredom around being in a house all day — the whole city became our playground.
On our excursions we explored the flora in High Park and the waves at Kew Beach but also the shiny towers of the Financial District. We frequented a range of art institutions, admiring Shary Boyle at the AGO, watching weird videos at the MOCA and understanding what an installation is at Show and Tell Gallery (now Cooper Cole). We learned about wigs in Little Jamaica and about sea creatures in Chinatown. Our urban explorations had no limits. Once we even took the TTC to Pearson Airport to watch planes take off and land. As the kids became comfortable moving through their city, they were empowered with a new sense of confidence and wonder.
We plugged into my community of creatives for guest artists. The kids wrote and recorded songs with my bandmate Daniel Lee (if marketed properly, "Dancey Rocket Song" should have won a Juno). They learned about patterns and ink drawing techniques with visual artist Leah Gold. We also infused our days with environmental and social justice. Some days, we would talk about Caesar Chavez and farmers' rights while visiting the Royal Winter Fair. Other days, we would observe workers' strikes happening outside of fancy hotels. (Fuelled by new inspiration, the kids protested against an excursion to Allen Gardens, fighting for their wishes to visit the adjacent dog park instead — they were obviously victorious.)
The playschool grew exponentially. By year three, we were 12 artist educators and two youth volunteers providing care for 45 families (they were also happy to donate use of their homes while they were at work). You would see groups of children gallivanting with musician Maylee Todd or Fuzzy Logic Recordings owner Maria Bui, and kids making art at Whipper Snapper Gallery with then-director Adrian Di Lena or dancing in a studio with community artist Julia Hune-Brown.
We operated as a small collective of businesses. Each of the artist educators had autonomy and flexibility. We all worked part-time with the kids and part-time with our own artistic practices. All the kids knew the entire team of artist caregivers and all the artist caregivers knew all the kids. Whenever I left for tour with Hooded Fang, I wouldn't miss that much work and it was easy for the other educators to cover for me. Each of the artists had this freedom as well and could take time off from playschool to focus on an upcoming show whenever needed.
This non-linear, flexible work structure supported the health and longevity of this alternative system. After three years, the ideas and framework were established. The collective didn't need any one person to run this network of home daycares — it sustained itself.
In 2014 my band put out our fourth full-length Gravez and I wanted to focus more time and energy on touring. It was hard to say goodbye to playschool, to something I helped build and grow, but it was time for me to move on. Now, nine years after its inception, there are still three groups running it as an afterschool program!
The playschool started with the need for childcare but ended up being a transformation of systems. It immersed kids in Toronto's arts, culture and urban landscape, provided artists with income and flexibility, made use of vacant space and built community. As our city rapidly grows, I am now wondering if it is possible to translate the ideas and alternative systems cultivated in this experimental childcare venture to alleviate some new pressures that are arising.
How can we maximize use of underutilized spaces in the city and transform them into affordable spaces? Are there ways they can be offered in exchange for something other than money? Can we imagine non-linear, collective processes to run other businesses? Can we co-share positions of power? Can there be lucrative part-time work for people who have pursuits independent of capitalism?
Playschool and the alternative models born out of it were made possible because everyone involved — the artists, educators and parents — were open to new ideas and willing to take risks and put their trust in others. Seems like a good time to consider these approaches.