Supporting Young Children and Families in Rural Montana

One of the happiest, busiest, and most colorful places in Beaverhead County is The Village Playspace in Dillon. Happy, chattering children fill the space—climbing, swinging, making art, and playing with blocks, trucks, and plastic animals. Staff and volunteers read picture books to a small group of toddlers. Parents join the play or relax on comfortable couches, chatting with each other. Off to one side, they can browse racks of donated low- or no-cost clothes and supplies for infants and young children. They can also find information on community resources, parent groups, and upcoming parenting classes.  


The Village Playspace is a fantastic resource for families in Beaverhead County, where roughly 9,500 people are spread across the biggest county in Montana. Rural families rarely have access to such a robust program for early childhood services, care, and education. “There is really a vacuum of resources for early childhood and families here” says Maria Emmer-Aanes of ECC Beaverhead County. Children who live on farms or deep in the woods have the advantages of room to roam and explore, but they have fewer opportunities for socialization in the early years. Parents also need social connections with other caregivers. “We had a ton of support from people in this area because they were so hungry for these resources,” says Melissa Winger, Director of Programs. “Our biggest goal is just that this is a fixture in our county moving forward, that people can rely on us, and that they can expect this programming for years to come. “ 


A resource center like the Village Playspace can have a huge impact for families in Montana’s rural areas. How did Dillon make it happen? 

Strengthening the Good Work Through Partnership 

The answer is partnership, on many levels. Level one: Beaverhead County parents and providers of early childhood services came together to brainstorm ways to fill the gaps in services and support experienced by local families with young children. Level two: Headwaters Foundation funded Beaverhead County to implement their solutions, as well as the UM’s Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development (the Center) to support the formation and activities of early childhood coalitions (ECC) across the state. Level three: The Center helped the Beaverhead County group in their efforts to form an ECC and supported the ECC as they worked to turn their community’s hopes and dreams into reality. 


The work of the ECC of Beaverhead County did not stop with the Village Playspace; they continue their work to support area children and families. The partnership with the Center continues as well. The Center provides technical support, including the development of marketing materials, grant writing assistance, survey analysis, and partnership referrals, as well as continuous thought partnership on program development and sustainability. Emmer-Aanes is grateful for the success of the partnership. As she describes it, “Together, we are building a community where every child thrives, and every family is supported.”  


The Village Playspace demonstrates the power of partnership between local residents, with their deep understanding of the community, and technical assistance from a group like the Center. In Dillon, this partnership looks like belonging, connection, learning, and a whole lot of fun.  


To learn more about the Early Childhood Coalition of Beaverhead County or to support their work, please visit their website: www.earlychildhood406.org.  

The Center’s Early Childhood Work 

The Center works on multiple projects to support early childhood care and education (ECCE) efforts across the state. 

  • Resources for Early Childhood Coalitions: The Center collaborates with Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies and Zero to Five Montana to convene and support the Montana Early Childhood Coalition (MTECC). The Center is developing a resource guide to help early childhood coalitions—like the Beaverhead County’s ECC—develop and sustain effective efforts. We also offer coaching and training to help coalitions with the nuts and bolts of operations, such as identifying funding sources, accessing data to inform decision-making, and developing outreach and marketing materials. 

  • Strategies for the Early Childhood Workforce: The Center is researching effective recruitment and retention strategies for the early childhood workforce to inform policy decisions that will support this critical sector. By learning from successful initiatives in Montana and other states, DPHHS can make strategic and informed decisions to ensure a healthy childcare workforce that is critical to caregivers’ ability to work and further their education. 

  • Bringing Early Childhood Providers and Mental Health Professionals Together: The Center is developing training and certification for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants (IECMHC). IECMHC are licensed mental health professionals that develop specialized skills to consult with early childhood workers, with the goal of supporting both children’s social-emotional development children and the capacity of the early childhood workforce.  

  • Early Childhood Needs Assessment: The Center is facilitating a survey for the Montana DPHHS Early Childhood and Family Services Division’s update of the statewide early childhood system needs assessment. The results will help inform strategic planning and state policy decisions about services for young children and their families.  

  • Evaluation of Child Care Innovations: The Center is evaluating 30 projects across the state that used ARPA grant money to expand access to child care services, particularly those that care for infants and toddlers, offer non-traditional hours, or operate in child care deserts. Findings will support Montana DPHHS’ efforts to encourage and support effective, targeted child care programs where they are most needed. 


Want to know more about the Center’s work in early childhood?

Contact Mary Collins: [email protected].  

The Center for Children, Families & Workforce Development partners with the child protection, health, educational, and judicial systems to develop educational and training resources for professionals and caregivers statewide. We also conduct research that focuses on solving problems that impact children and families, and we work to help partnering agencies with capacity building and technical assistance.

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