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VOICES reports

Toronto First Duty: Blueprint for early learning and child care services
By Kerry McCuaig, communications manager, Toronto First Duty

Toronto First Duty Project breaks new ground and crosses traditional boundaries to bring the comprehensive vision of the Early Years Study to life for children and families in Toronto. In this report, Kerry McCuaig describes the model, its goals and the "powerhouse" partnership behind an integrated learning and child care initiative designed with children and their parents at the centre.


Ask Mahmoud what he likes best and the answer is ‘school'. Indeed, Mahmoud looks like any other five year old off to spend two and half hours in one of the city's kindergarten programs. But Mahmoud is going to a school with a difference. He's among the first to attend the Bruce/WoodGreen Early Learning Centre at Bruce Public School in east Toronto. There he spends a day packed with music, stories, reading and math games, crafts and outdoor play, and digs into a full hot lunch and tasty snacks. Meanwhile his mom, Entesar Adulwahed, is down the hall in a colourful room filled with adult-sized easy chairs and children's play centres.

Entesar, the mother of four boys ranging in age from 3 months to 7 years, credits the centre with her ‘sanity'. "At home all day with the children I was stressed and depressed. Here the children spend time doing things they love, and I have the support of other parents and the professional advice of the staff."

The Adulwahed children are among the 1250 city youngsters under six taking part in Toronto First Duty, an ambitious project designed to combine the three pillars of early learning and care – regulated child care, kindergarten and parenting supports – into a single, accessible service.

At first glance, a Toronto First Duty room doesn't look much different than a traditional kindergarten or child care setting, but behind the scenes a great deal more is happening. Teachers, early childhood educators, educational assistants and parenting workers form a staff team to create a learning environment drawing on the best of the kindergarten curriculum, early childhood education and parenting supports. The child does not bounce from child care to kindergarten and back again, but instead, spends her day in a consistent environment, with the same adults, with the same expectations.

The design responds to two pressing social needs -- giving children the ‘smart start' they need for school and for life while at the same time supporting parents to do their job as parents as they pursue work, training or the care of other family members.

It's a place where everyone in the family learns. Toddler Omaar was jealous of the attention his mom had to give new baby Osman. "Here I can relax and breastfeed the baby," says Entesar. "Omaar is too busy with his friends and activities to mind. The staff have advised me how to deal with his anger and I can see how much his self-esteem has improved."

The goal of Toronto First Duty is to offer families a program where they can enrol their child for a part, full or extended day. Children participate in age-appropriate activities designed to support their cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Parents are encouraged to take part by participating in parenting classes, attending parent/child playgroups or joining their child at the beginning or end of the day for reading circle or other activities. Program staff link families to community health and social service supports as required. Additional programs can be offered on site; public health for example, provides pre and postnatal classes.

Centred in five sites attached to neighbourhood schools, Toronto First Duty is not a "one-off pilot project," says Toronto Councillor and Children's Advocate, Olivia Chow. "We intend to use our on-the-ground expertise to provide senior governments with a blueprint of how to provide early years services effectively."

The project also addresses the shortcomings of provincial government policy which has focused on parent information while ignoring families' needs for quality child care.

"Ontario's approach has been to layer yet another program onto those already in the community at the same time as it erodes the foundation services – child care and kindergarten. The result has been increased confusion with less service. Information for parents is useful, but even the best of parents cannot compensate for overcrowded kindergarten classes and the absence of quality child care," says Chow.

The project has received the endorsement of some heavy child advocacy hitters. Dr. Fraser Mustard told CBC radio that First Duty "got it right" when it came to early years services. His co-chair for the Early Years Study, Margaret Norrie McCain, describes the Toronto First Duty project as, "a culmination of our work. These are the child development and parenting centres we recommended be available for every child."

Lori Gray spent 15 years as an early childhood educator in a traditional child care program before volunteering for the project. "ECE, teachers and parenting workers share the same goals and achieve the same outcomes, although our methods differ. It has been a wonderful experience to learn from one another as we incorporate the best from each discipline into a single practice."

Gray's teaching team is comprised of two teachers, two educational assistants and another early childhood educator. Together they plan and deliver the program for about 50 children. They are able to provide an integrated curriculum while still meeting the Ministry of Education's kindergarten requirements and the guidelines of the Day Nurseries Act. Added to the mix is the special expertise the parenting worker brings in working with parents. Not surprisingly, Gray says her greatest reward has come from the children. "We have witnessed behaviour improvements as the children respond to a more structured day and become familiar with the routines. They really enjoy coming to the centre."

Parents say the benefits even spill over into the home. Mealtimes in the Adulwahed household could be bedlam with three young boys running around. "Here they've learned table manners," their mother says.

Cost of the programs varies. At Bruce, Adulwahed pays $100 a month for the full day program for Mahmoud. There is no fee for parenting and playgroup programs. Funding from the partners allows for service expansion and an affordable fee structure.

Behind Toronto First Duty is a powerhouse partnership:

  • The Toronto District School Board is the largest in the country and has long been a leader in kindergarten and parenting supports.
  • The schools associated with the project are: Bruce Public School, Corvette Public School, Queen Victoria Public School, Secord Public School and J.R. Wilcox Community School.
  • The City of Toronto is the systems manager for over 800 child care and family resource programs and a Canadian pioneer in tracking child outcomes.
  • The sponsoring community agencies that manage the projects have deep roots in their neighbourhoods:

    The Child Development Institute, (formerly known as The Crèche and Earlscourt); East York/East Toronto Family Resources; Macaulay Child Development Centre; Not Your Average Daycare Community Inc; and, Woodgreen Community Centre.

  • The auto companies and Canadian Auto Workers Union bring their important labour/business perspective in providing workplace child care

  • The Atkinson Charitable Foundation kick started the process, just one of its many initiatives for children, families and social justice.

  • The teachers' unions participate and

  • Human Resources Development Canada is helping to fund the research.
The intent of the project is to demonstrate to the public and to policymakers how existing early childhood and family programs can be transformed from the current disjointed patchwork into a solid foundation. The foundation would provide a base for new public investments to build a system of early learning and child care.

For parents, it takes the guesswork out of where to go to find the supports they need. "We need to build ‘institutions of trust' for families with young children," says Professor Dan Keating who is part of the team from Toronto and Ryerson universities heading the research. He uses public education as a comparison: "When a child turns six, parents don't wonder where to go to help the child read and write. Schools are the community centres that perform this function. There is no similar institution for children during their early years."

Sustainability is an issue as the main partners grapple with shrinking resources. Atkinson executive director Charles Pascal points to some openings: both the provincial opposition parties have made a commitment to early education in their platforms; recent federal/provincial agreements on child development and care open up new resources.


"Everyone acknowledges that investments in the early years provide enormous payoffs but community agencies and local governments have little leeway to experiment. This brings us to who is missing from the partnership," says Pascal. "It is not the job of business or foundations to fund essential services. Only senior governments have the resources and the responsibility to make universal early learning and care a reality.   We are doing our part, we expect the compelling example of Toronto First Duty, will prompt them to do theirs."


Toronto First Duty plans to show how this can happen. During the three-year project the partners intend to answer some important questions:

  • What would a universal early learning and care system look like?
  • How will it combine the best of child development, early education and parenting supports?
  • What professional skills does it require?
  • How would it operate?
  • How can existing community resources be better organized to serve as a strong foundation for new public investments?

The experiences at the sites being captured by the research team will provide valuable lessons on how to respond to the challenges inherent in combining services with different cultures and legislative frameworks. It will be looking at how to establish accountability mechanisms that support the best use of public funds while improving outcomes for families and children.


At the end of the process, policymakers will have a blueprint for change containing a governance framework, an integrated curriculum and human resource model, monitoring and accountability tools and a communication strategy. Children, in turn, will benefit from a "smart start" and their parents will benefit from a system of flexible supports.

At a Glance

Toronto First Duty Project

The Goal:

An early learning and child care program for every child that

  • Supports the healthy development of children
At the same time as it
  • Supports parents to work or study
  • Supports parents in their parenting role

The Partners

City of Toronto, Toronto District School Board, Atkinson Charitable Foundation, Canadian Autoworkers Union Child Care Fund; Human Resources Development Canada (research), Toronto Public Health, the Ontario Teachers Federation of Ontario, the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. The lead agencies for the sites: Not Your Average Daycare Community Inc.; The Child Development Institute, (formerly known as The Crèche and Earlscourt); Macaulay Child Development Centre; Woodgreen Community Centre and East York/East Toronto Family Resources.

The schools associated with the project are:
Secord Public School; Corvette Public School; Queen Victoria Public School; J.R. Wilcox Community School and Bruce Public School.

Project management:

The partners are each represented by a decision-making member on a steering committee that oversees the project. The lead agencies, school principal and participating community agencies are responsible for the management of the sites.


Toronto First Duty has a budget of $5-million over three years to support service integration and expansion, research and communications.


McCain, M. & Mustard, F. (April 1999). The Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain. (PDF)

Resources and Links

Toronto First Duty Web Site

Author Bio

Kerry McCuaig is a researcher and consultant with Better Child Care Education. She represents the Atkinson Charitable Foundation Early Years Panel on the Steering Committee.

Copyright © Voices for Children, 2008.
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