The entire downstairs of Summer Emison's home is set up for 12 children ages 2-5. Emison provides care from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, and one of the things the kids like is the puzzle wall, she said of her space complete with interactive doors and creative, brain-twisting activities.

"I live by Lincoln Park, and I like taking my kids over there because it's like a natural playground," she said of the creek, leaves and the park's other features. "We walk across the bridge and throw rocks in. My age group is perfect for that. When I give them the option, 'Do you want to get lunch?,' they want to keep going. I love exploring with them."

But while her day is spent with many small kids, Emison said day care can be isolating. "You're in the house all day with no other adults," she said. Noticing her own needs as a child care provider led Emison to establish a training program and support group in the area.

Summer Emison laughs with children at her West Duluth day care. David Ballard Photography
Summer Emison laughs with children at her West Duluth day care. David Ballard Photography
Toward the start of this year, Emison organized caregiver "Meet and Eats" to provide a space for people who work in the business to interact face-to-face. Once a month, the group gathers at a local restaurant to decompress, discuss new legislation, resolve problems and feel a sense of community.

Another topic of discussion at the Meet and Eats is the training program Emison started in October 2018 to address a need for more substitute providers. "I had a sub, and she was canceling all the time, and we needed someone reliable and responsible because we schedule our day off to do all of our doctors' appointments and kids' stuff," she said. "It's so hard to do anything and take time off because parents rely on you."

In addition to providing full-time care for other people's young kids, Emison is a mom of four, ages 7-20. The training program she started has helped her manage her time and aid in training more licensed caregivers, who are in high demand due to a growing shortage of providers in the area.

Emison stressed the importance of getting a license and proper training when getting involved in day care - and of ensuring your provider has the necessary experience. "Parents are going to Craigslist or wherever to find unlicensed providers or babysitters, and that's where people run into problems," she said. "If a baby is crying, and they're not trained or know how to deal with it, they can hurt them."

Currently, Emison has five substitutes she is training or working with, but hopes to have 10 by the end of the year.

"Summer was really helpful about what classes I needed to take to get my license," said Kaitlin Romper, one of the first subs that Emison trained through her program. Before working with Emison, Romper had completed CPR and other training as a nurse, but needed more training before getting her license. Emison's program helped guide her to the information she needed and provided her with hands-on experience.

Training for a child care license requires CPR, first aid, SUIDS (Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome), AHT (Abusive Head Trauma) and more. Once completed, providers maintain their license by completing classes. Topics within these classes included areas of health and safety, active supervision, outside play, balancing screen time and nutrition.

Romper described that both the Meet and Eats and training program have been helpful for gaining new ideas. She described her mentor as "creative with activities for the kids to do. It's cold for half of the year, and it's hard to get the kids outside. She is great at keeping them occupied and busy. She keeps the kids laughing."

Instead of having her kids sit down with worksheets tracing letters, Emison focuses on play-based learning. "The kind of care I provide always changes," she said. "I don't sit down and do a curriculum with the kids, so it changes in the summertime, especially, because we are doing more learning outside."

Gavin Bunt plays with Play-Doh during playtime at Summer Emison's West Duluth day care. David Ballard Photography
Gavin Bunt plays with Play-Doh during playtime at Summer Emison's West Duluth day care. David Ballard Photography
Play-based learning consists of counting stairs and identifying the colors of signs. She also dedicates time to reviewing numbers, colors, letters and body parts. Her mornings also include crafting, music and dance.

The type of care Emison provides has also shifted over the years while working with child care centers as well as kids in her home. She has partnered with military branches and crisis nurseries such as Bethany Crisis Shelter to provide care. Similarly, her sub-training program has expanded to help prepare workers for child care centers and at-home environments.

Emison has attributed one of the causes for the lack of licensed caregivers to laws and legislation that make the job more complicated and one of the "reasons why people don't always take infants." Describing a disconnect between caregivers and legislators, she said, "I think that if people are making laws about how to take care of day cares, they should work in a day care."

Providing day care can mean long days that don't end at closing time; there's shopping for groceries and craft preparation. Another reason Emison gave when asked about the shortage of providers is that providing day care to kids is "a thankless job."

"You get parents that don't appreciate you, and it's long days that don't end when it's closing time," she said.

Despite the long days that coincide with her career choice, she said she enjoys watching the children grow.

"While it's a thankless job, it's one with the greatest rewards."

Emison welcomes new substitutes to her team and can be reached at (218) 727-7887.

Jessica Morgan is a Duluth freelance writer and musician. She runs the Duluth chapter of the League of Minnesota Poets nonprofit.