Business Spotlight: Natural Steps Child Development Center

By Madeline Otten, Correspondent

Lauren Joyner has always loved working with children. When she was 14 years old, she created her own babysitting business and continued it within her neighborhood throughout high school and college.

Carrying out her dream, Joyner is now the proud owner and director of Natural Steps Child Development Center located at 64 Toby Way, behind CVS and next to Palmyra Automotive.

The center opened this past September and has been busy since day one. Joyner started with five children and now currently has 31 students enrolled, with a license to care for 100 children from one month to 12 years old. On staff, there are five full-time teachers and one part-time teacher with an additional staff member joining in January.

“We have the best staff. Without our teachers none of this would be possible. They show up every day with ideas and compassion,” said Joyner. “They care about the children, about the families, about our school environment, and they care about each other. I am so lucky to work alongside such a wonderful group of people.”

Before moving to Fluvanna County, Joyner earned her bachelor of science in human development and master of arts and education in counselor education from Virginia Tech. Even though it was a dream to start her own childcare center, she was not sure about where to start. She found a career she loved as a school counselor. The path was safe, reliable, and provided what she needed at the time.

She decided not to take the risk of starting her own business fresh out of college and continued with counseling. Joyner stayed in Hokie territory and worked as a high school counselor in Christiansburg, then eventually moved to Charlottesville to work as a school counselor at Crozet Elementary.

In September 2014, Joyner and her husband, Jesse, moved to Fluvanna County because it was a good place to grow their family. Three years later, in May 2017, Joyner and Jesse welcomed their daughter, Kate, into the world. This shifted Joyner’s perspective on a lot of things, especially when it came to leading by example. Joyner wanted to spend more time with her daughter, but also wanted to work.

Even though working as a counselor was something Joyner loved, it kept her away from home. Creating her own center was the perfect environment that allowed her to work and spend time with Kate.

“I know as a parent how daunting and scary it can feel to place your child in the care of someone else, and I wanted to provide that safe space for families. I wanted to create a place where they walk in and feel like family,” said Joyner. “I wanted to create a community where they felt connected to their child’s experience throughout the day. I don’t think I was ready for this experience until I had the perspective of being a parent.”

The general schedule begins at 6:30 a.m. with drop-off and morning play lasting until 8:30, which is then followed by a snack and a morning meeting. After, children have curriculum and outside time with lunch at 11:30 a.m. Rest time follows an hour after lunch with an afternoon nap starting at 3 p.m. The last part of the day consists of outside time, free play, and pick up from 4-6 p.m.

Throughout the day children partake in a wide variety of activities. There is structured time in their day in which they do planned activities, but there is also plenty of free time when they get to choose what they want to do. They enjoy anything that allows them to get creative and messy, especially painting and coloring. Joyner particularly loves watching them create and listening to their pretend play because of the creative ideas the children come up with.

Joyner designed the day to provide learning experiences through play and focuses on the whole child, so the children are learning not only cognitive skills, but social and emotional skills as well.

“With my school counselor background, I have always been interested in how the way we think and feel influences how we learn,” said Joyner. “In our program we see the whole child and encourage growth socially, emotionally, and cognitively. We understand that learning and growth do not happen without a foundation that feels emotionally safe and nurturing.”

Joyner is also passionate about building relationships and believes in community. She thinks everyone should have a place where they feel they belong and are valued. Joyner makes sure that the children have opportunities each day to work on building relationships, being responsible and getting creative.

Parents are also kept in the loop about their child through an app called Kinderlime. This app allows parents to get real time updates of their child’s day, such as receiving photos throughout the day and updates on their child’s activities and mood.

“I think this is great because then parents can ask their children about specific parts of their day,” said Joyner. “For example, instead of just asking how it was in general, they can say something like, ‘I saw a picture of you doing that cool watercolor painting in the snow! Tell me about it.’ or, ‘It looked like you were feeling a little sad after nap. Can you tell me why?’ It really allows our program to shine and gives the communication that I think is so important between schools and families.”
For a short-term goal, Joyner hopes to build a summer program for school-aged children, which is in the works.

“We have the space and I know there is a need here. I am ironing out the final details and should start opening spots after the first of the year,” said Joyner. “I am also focused on building our reputation and program. I am proud of what we have established and I think we have a great foundation to build on.”

As for long-term goals, Joyner would like to run a full school. This would include care for children one month to pre-K as well as a summer program for children through the age of 12, along with a before- and after-school program for children in the local schools.

“We want to provide a place for our community that feels like an extension of your family. When people enroll I always tell them they’re family now. The home-to-school connection is very important to me,” said Joyner. “I love that this position allows me to build relationships with each family. This is definitely where I am meant to be.”

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