The Playing Field

One Innovative Nonprofit, Two Early Education Centers, and a National Model

Two young boys painting at The Playing Field

‘Jasmine’ (not her real name) had been expelled from every preschool program she’d attended before she came to The Playing Field. When her family drove by the schools she’d attended, Jasmine would say, “Those people hate me.” She was a living example of a tragic statistic: the rates for preschool expulsion are four times higher than K-12.

Abbi Kruse knew the problems facing families of children like Jasmine. And she had a vision to address them: an early care and education model designed to break down barriers faced by low-income families in accessing high-quality early care and education.

Right Time, Right Place

In 2014, Kruse had accepted a position at the UW‑Madison Preschool Lab as director. Shortly afterward, Early Head Start approached the Preschool Lab to partner in serving children experiencing homelessness — just as the School of Human Ecology was deciding to close its Preschool Lab. The Head Start offer made it possible for Kruse to act on her vision. The result? The Playing Field.

The Playing Field began operations on Madison’s near west side in 2015. “Abbi had a dream to bring top-quality early education to all kids, regardless of race, economic status, homelessness. She went way out on a limb to make it happen,” observed Playing Field board president Tom Popp. The Playing Field’s approach is research-based, hands-on and innovative in its methodology.

A second location on Madison’s east side was in the planning stages when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Despite fears about the timing, Kruse is glad they persevered, helped in part by a field of interest grant from MCF.

“What kept me going was that I just kept hearing about the need” for childcare, Kruse said. “We found out that there were over 60 families sheltered during the pandemic in a hotel right behind the location we’d identified. Opening our second preschool when we did allowed families to go back to work and get back on their feet.”

Meeting Children and Families with Conscious Discipline

At the core of The Playing Field’s methodology is Conscious Discipline®, an evidence-based, trauma-informed approach practiced with children and their families. The Conscious Discipline method rejects judgments about “good” or “bad” behavior. At the Playing Field, the focus is on getting each child to experience success.

“It flips that judgment completely upside down. All behavior is communication,” Kruse observed. Misbehavior means “a child is either missing a skill or asking for help.”

To support Jasmine, Kruse looked for ways for her to experience success. “I noticed that every time she was around a baby, she would light up with joy.” Kruse arranged for Jasmine to help with Baby Doll Circle Time®. “She went from a little girl who frequently said, ‘people hate me’ to literally swaggering down the hall saying ‘babies love me’,” Kruse said.

Providing Stable Relationships

Consistent relationships also are crucial, especially for children like Jasmine. “Our model is built on the understanding that emotional attachment is the best buffer against adverse childhood experiences,” said Kruse.

Nothing prepares teachers for how heart-wrenching it can be working with kids who have been affected by trauma. The Playing Field works to help teachers manage that stress with intensive staff training and mentoring by other teachers. This has helped reduce turnover, which is crucial to maintaining a stable relationship for the kids.

The Playing Field young kids playing

“For some kids, this is THE place where they have a bonded connection with a caring adult,” Popp explains. “We want to keep kids with the same staff member for as long as possible.”

The teachers at The Playing Field really do care about the kids. “The teachers worked so hard during the pandemic, despite their personal fear and fear for their families,” Kruse explained.

“We were able to meet the needs of the children by staying in the moment,” Kruse continued. “But the adults definitely felt the stress because we weren’t able to keep up some of those family connections that are so important.”

What’s Good for One Is Good for All

The Playing Field’s most recent innovation, a sensory playground funded with help from the Attic Angel Association, opened in July 2021. “We’re extremely grateful to be able to provide those experiences to all children, but especially those that have any kind of sensory needs”, Kruse said. “Core to our mission is combining kids impacted by trauma alongside children from the community. The playground provides another opportunity for them to interact. Both groups of children learn from each other.”

Popp added, “It’s a magical mix that feels important, given that Dane County is one of the worst places in the country for outcomes for people of color.”

What’s Next?

Today, the Playing Field’s board is focusing on diversifying its revenue streams. The group recently established an endowment with MCF to provide long-term support for the work that they are doing. “Some people want to give for a specific immediate need that excites them. Others want to make a gift that will support the organization in perpetuity,” Popp said. “Both are important for the long-term stability of any nonprofit.”

Meanwhile, Kruse and her leadership team are working to raise money for a permanent new home for the East Side location that will include classrooms and observation areas in addition to its child care spaces. “With this facility, we can expand our ability to train other educators on Conscious Discipline and our trauma-informed practices,” said Kruse, who is nationally sought after as a speaker and trainer.

“This is not just another place where you can stick your kids while you go to work. It’s a national model for how to do early childhood care and education right,” said Popp.

Make a gift to The Playing Field Endowment.

To see updates on The Playing Field’s new facility and learn more about the work it’s doing, visit

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