She tossed aside her ambition to become a child psychologist and settled instead on nurturing that wonder in a classroom.
For nearly three decades, she was director of the Child Development Center at the University of Rhode Island, teaching hundreds of children from the URI community and beyond.
Now, it’s the center’s turn to give back.
Today, the center dedicated its playground to Warford, who retired in March. Parents, professors, staff and even the little ones turned out to thank the Wakefield resident for her kindness, talent and dedication.
Play is crucial to helping children learn. No kid wants to sit in a hard chair all day, learning her ABCs.
Warford understood that. Speakers at the event said she encouraged children, parents and students to strike a balance between being serious and having fun. It was fitting, then, that the center broke ground for a balance beam – and that children turned the soil.
“Sue helped everyone around her achieve better balance in their lives,” said Jessica MacLeod, the center’s new director and Warford’s former student. “Her leadership was outstanding.”
Warford taught children how to appreciate learning – and be silly, said MacLeod. She taught parents how to manage the anxieties of parenting, but also revel in the pleasures. She helped URI students conquer the material, but teach with compassion. And she encouraged the center’s teachers to balance their professional and family lives.
Lori Ciccomascolo, interim dean of the College of Human Science and Services, said Warford has been the “bedrock” of the center, calling her welcoming, empathetic, respectful and imaginative. “We just adore you,” said Ciccomascolo.
Warford grew up outside New Haven and attended Wesleyan University, with plans to become a child psychologist. Her life changed after working at a child development center her junior year.
“I loved the way a 3-year-old looked at the world, like the boy floating a leaf,” she said. “There was so much enthusiasm, excitement and joy. I fell in love with the idea of teaching young children.”
After graduating with a degree in child psychology, she earned her master’s degree in early childhood development from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
She landed at URI in 1987. Two months after she arrived, the director told her she was leaving and encouraged Warford to apply. Over the years, she transformed the center into a nationally recognized school.
From the start Warford created a loving culture for youngsters – and a robust learning environment for URI teachers and students. The center on Lower College Road enrolls about 30 students a year. About 100 URI students, most earning degrees in human development and early childhood education, do practicums there every year.
Under Warford’s leadership the center won accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 1993 – considered the gold standard of quality early childhood education.
Warford’s kindness to others is legendary. She was the URI Foundation’s Administrative Excellence Award winner in 2005, and URI’s College of Human Science and Services Outstanding Professional Staff award winner in 2004.
One of her signature projects was the annual Art Exchange in which children made refrigerator magnets, picture frames, key chains, note cards and bookmarks to raise money for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Her professional accomplishments span decades. In May, the URI Association of Academic and Professional Women named her Woman of the Year. She taught early childhood education at URI and worked as an education consultant for the state’s Early Learning Standards Project.
But it’s her days at the center that she treasures most. Her time, she says, was filled with rewards – seeing the center’s teachers mentor URI students, teaching children how to settle disputes peacefully and helping anxious parents breathe.
She remembers dancing with the children, singing, laughing and planting a garden every spring. She would help the boys and girls dig small holes, but she let them drop in the seeds and water. “Those are the beautiful moments,” she said. Any highlights of her career? “The highlights happened every day. That’s what happens when you spend time with children.”
Many of her “graduates” come back to visit. From time to time, she runs into them at a grocery store or restaurant. They’re grown up now – some are 30 years old – but the conversation and laughter flows easily.
“I loved the job every minute,” Warford said. “I miss it. I miss it very much. I was the luckiest woman in the world.”
After the ceremony, there were hugs all around. Guests sipped cider while children played in a sandbox on the “Susan D.G. Warford Playground.”
“She’s so inspiring,” said Sharon Greenwood, a teacher at the center. “She made me a better teacher – and human being.”
Vera Wunsch, a 5-year-old kindergartner who went to the center as a toddler, remembers learning sign language and taking long walks to the library.
The children gathered in front of a big rock and sang the hymn, “Peace Like A River.” They opened their arms to the crowd: “I have joy like a fountain in my heart. I have love like an ocean.”
Warford stood under a golden maple, hands folded, smiling.
Photos: Sue Warford, former director of the Child Development Center at the University of Rhode Island. Children at the URI Child Development Center. URI photos by Nora Lewis.
At the Event
Lori Ciccomascolo, interim dean of the College of Human Science and Services and dean of URI’s Feinstein College of Continuing Education in Providence, was a speaker at today’s dedication. Here’s a copy of her speech:
On behalf of the College of Human Science and Services, I want to thank Jessica MacLeod and Karen McCurdy, and everyone at the Child Development Center, for inviting me to say a few words at this wonderful dedication ceremony for Sue Warford.
The words are yet to be invented that are true enough to express the gratitude and admiration we have for Sue and all that she means to URI, the CDC and all of the children and parents who have walked through these doors.
It is so fitting that today we dedicate this playground to Sue not only for all of her efforts in renovating it over the years but because Sue has been the bedrock of the CDC, and she has taught and nurtured children, and their children’s children, through a thoughtful curriculum that includes play.
As many of you know, especially those in the human development field, if we wish to understand children, it is important to understand their play. But when most people hear the word “play” they may not think of it taking place in a laboratory setting like we see at the CDC. They may not realize that children at play can practice both verbal and nonverbal communication skills; they learn empathy and they learn the importance of experiencing others’ points of view by working through conflicts about space and rules. Play supports emotional, physical and creative development and it can offer this development in a risk-free environment.
And that sounds a lot like Sue. Empathic, great communicator, respectful of other people’s perspectives and creative and imaginative. (So when you see Sue talking to herself, we call that being imaginative.)
Like children at play, Sue never needs applause to be at her best. An integrity that has never wavered, Sue has always been about the action, never about the words. Sue, we dedicate this playground to you, for your commitment, advocacy and care throughout your career at the Child Development Center. And since research states that early pretend play may enhance a child’s capacity for creativity, I am going to be creative and imaginative and hereby declare today to be Sue Warford Day at the University of Rhode Island. Sue, congratulations! Well deserved.