For 60 years, Sacramento's Tot Town has helped kids become independent

03/31/2013 12:00 AM

03/31/2013 11:21 AM

Sixty years ago today, the doors of Tot Town swung open.

Tuition was $25 a month. Today, it's $760. But, while fees have gone up, some things have not changed. Macaroni and cheese is still the favorite lunch at the child care center south of downtown. Out on the playground, kids can clamber on a 1945 Plymouth – just as their parents did when they were at Tot Town.

And teachers are still firm, but caring, an approach revealed in favorite Tot Town sayings such as "You get what you get and don't throw a fit" and "We are all friends at Tot Town."

Tot Town Child Development Center – founded on March 31, 1953 – came of age when women began to enter the workplace in greater numbers. In 1940, only 8.6 percent of mothers with children younger than 18 were in the workforce. By 1996, that number had risen to 57 percent, according to a National Network for Child Care report.

"That began to change when women went to work after the war," said Nancy Ennis, one of the center's owners, who has worked at Tot Town for 31 years. She said adults often knock on the door wanting to see the old Plymouth they played on as kids.

Ennis thinks Tot Town has survived because it has not strayed from its philosophy.

"You respect and love kids, but there is an expectation that they do things a certain way," said Ennis. "We bite food, we don't bite our friends. Our theme is that we are all friends at Tot Town."

Ennis, 52, and her business partner, Cindy Coleman, are the third owners of Tot Town, acquiring the facility in 1993. She said many children who have attended Tot Town are the children of state workers.

"It's on 10th Street (near T), right on the way to work," she said.

Stephanie Tseu, whose two children have attended Tot Town, is a graduate of the pre-kindergarten child care center herself. She writes in a recent Tot Town newsletter that she always had fun attending the center as a kid.

"There is play time and there is learning time and the teachers are extremely patient as they teach the kids the difference," she said.

The school doesn't look like much on the outside, kept a drab beige because of the need to paint over graffiti. But on the inside vibrant murals are everywhere.

The sinks and drinking fountains are original, though the kitchen and bathrooms were recently remodeled.

The school is modeled on the beliefs of Rudolf Dreikurs, an American psychiatrist and educator. "It's an old philosophy. It is positive discipline," Ennis said. "We don't do for a child what they can do for themselves."

Tot Town teachers stress independence. Tykes hang up their own coats and they pour their own milk.

"I tell the parents: 'Put your hands behind your back and let these kids do it,' " Ennis said.

Positive discipline means good behavior is rewarded.

"If Joey is on the swing set and he is swinging on his belly, we will tell him to make his body safe," said Ennis. "If he continues to not swing on his bottom, we will take him to play on the car, telling him he's not ready to swing. We don't stand them in a corner or do timeouts. We redirect."

Call The Bee's Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079. Follow him on Twitter @Lindelofnews.

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