Lolli and Pops: From the Navy Base to a Family Child Care Home


Tonya and Royce Simons posing with their LENA Grow certificates

Tonya Simons remembers the day her husband, Royce, turned to her and said, “When I retire, we’re going to stay home and do child care, right?”

She was surprised. She was also thrilled.

Royce was in the final years of his career with the Georgia Department of Corrections. He was ready for the next chapter. He wanted to share it with his wife of more than 30 years. This venture would be the culmination of Tonya’s decades-long career in early childhood education, and it would be the beginning of Royce’s new calling.

“During my tenure working at the state prison, I began to notice the amount of young people that couldn’t read or write, and it broke my heart,” he said. “Child care is the foundation for children to learn. It can help make a successful child or break them.”

Tonya promised they would follow through. And when retirement day finally came in the summer of 2022, they did.

Run out of the Simons family home in Thomasville, Ga., All Smiles Childcare is going strong. The families are happy, and the waitlist is long (“They keep having babies!”). The children call them Lolli and Pops, and the parents consider them an extra set of grandparents. All Smiles Childcare’s Facebook page is proof enough of the kind of familial, close-knit environment Tonya and Royce have created.

“It’s not just a job,” Tonya said. “We put our heart and our soul into it.”

“I spent so much time out at sea and away from my family”

Tonya’s experience as an early childhood educator stretches back to the late 1990s. Royce was in the navy at the time. She herself had rarely ventured outside Thomasville.

She said, “He took me away from my daddy and moved me all the way to Norfolk, Va.”

Life on the navy base felt isolating. Tonya tried her hand at selling Tupperware. That didn’t stick. Then, she started working at the navy base’s child care program.

That did stick. It’s how she got her start.

"It's not just a job. We put our heart and our soul into it."

-Tonya Simons

Child care on the navy base was not a typical, morning-to-afternoon arrangement. With their parents out at sea, children lived with the couple for months at a time.

Sometimes, of course, it would just be with Tonya.

“I spent so much time out at sea and away from my family,” Royce said. “I vowed to be with my family as much as I could as soon as I could.”

By then, Tonya and Royce had two young children of their own (they would end up with five kids and 11 grandkids). The household was always buzzing with activity. And with chatter.

Lots and lots of chatter.

More than two decades later: LENA Grow

Tonya has long recognized the power of talking to children. With so much experience raising and teaching little learners — she also ran a church child care center once they moved back to Georgia — she’s also come to appreciate the power of talking with them. Even infants, with their expressive squeals, can be good conversationalists, she said.

When she was approached about taking part in LENA Grow, Tonya assumed there was nothing new to learn.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be easy,’ she said. “‘We already do this. What could they possibly teach us that we’re not doing already?’”

Lots, it turns out.

LENA Grow is a professional development program for early childhood educators with a very focused goal. That goal is to increase the number of back-and-forth interactions that children experience, even before they can talk. LENA has a name for these back-and-forth exchanges: conversational turns. LENA also has an innovative way of making sure early education classrooms are full of them: one-of-a-kind “talk pedometer” technology.

Children wear the LENA device in specially designed clothing for one full day weekly. At weekly coaching sessions, teachers analyze the data:

  • How many conversational turns did the class experience as a whole?
  • How many did each individual child experience?
  • When exactly did these conversational turns occur?

“Maybe he realized that someone was listening … ”

LENA Grow has spurred so much positivity at All Smiles. Tonya and Royce say they feel supported. The parents feel connected. The children’s growth, everyone agrees, has been spectacular.

From the perspective of their program coach, Arnethia Anderson, LENA Grow added something special to their already “passionate, genuine, loving, intentional teaching.”

One child, a toddler, had been having a tough time leading up to his first LENA Day.

LENA Grow Room Report

The Room Report from LENA Day #4 at All Smiles Childcare shows lots of conversational turns between Tonya and Royce and the children in their care.

“When he first came, he would cry from the time he came to my door to the time he left in the afternoon,” Tonya said. “He would cry and he would cry and he would cry.”

His behavior was disruptive. As much as it pained them to even consider it, Tonya and Royce were on the verge of having to drop him from their program.

Then came LENA Grow.

“From the time we started, we could tell the difference,” Tonya said. “It’s really mind-blowing.”

One afternoon at pick-up, the boy waved to them and said, “Bye.” It was the first time he had ever spoken in their presence. Tonya thinks it was a matter of building trust.

“That first LENA Day, it was like we put a super cape on,” she said. “Maybe he realized that someone was listening, that we were listening.”

Listening, after all, is such an important part of communicating. Something as simple as “waiting for their response,” one of LENA’s 14 Talking Tips, can make a world of difference in a child’s life.

“The LENA program has helped me in more ways than I can count,” Royce said. “It allows providers to unlock the children’s full potential.”

Statewide implementation, individual impact

Tonya and Royce took part in LENA Grow through the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL). Georgia DECAL, also known as Bright From the Start, coordinates everything from the state’s child care resource and referral (CCR&R) system to its quality improvement system (QIS).

Tonya and Royce have earned the maximum three-star rating, by the way.

Georgia DECAL is also responsible for the state’s professional development system for early childhood educators. It was the first state agency to adopt LENA Grow on a large scale.

“LENA’s program of helping early childhood educators improve talk with their children aligns with our agency’s mission to make the most of the formative years for every child,” said Susan Adams, Georgia DECAL’s Deputy Commissioner for Pre-K and Instructional Support. “Early language is a central element in preparing children for school success, and early childhood educators play a key role in that development.”

As of mid-2024, more than 5,500 children and some 1,400 early childhood educators in Georgia have taken part in LENA Grow.

Say hello to LENA Grow!

Explore a LENA Grow Demo


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

Related Posts

Please Give Us Your Thoughts

All comments are reviewed before being posted.

LENA is committed to protecting and respecting your privacy.

You may unsubscribe from these communications at any time.