At The Sunflower Patch, Eileen Esposito combines her talents as a music therapist, recording artist and songwriter to create enchanting experiences for children. With a deep-rooted passion for music ingrained in her DNA (her great-great-uncle composed “Silent Night”), Esposito’s own musical journey began at a young age.
Today, with a bachelor’s degree in music therapy from Berklee College of Music and extensive clinical credentials, Esposito’s mission is to share her expertise and fill a need for early learning programs that incorporate the magic of music.
Please describe your journey into music therapy and what inspired you to pursue this career path?
Eileen Esposito: Growing up, I sang, danced, wrote songs and played piano from the age of 3. I always loved how music—creating it, watching it, listening to it, sharing it with others—made me feel and the effect it had on others.
As a young adult, I worked as a recording artist in professional pop groups, and one of the groups was given the opportunity to perform an Armed Forces Entertainment tour for military bases throughout the Middle East in the early 2000’s. During this tour, I discovered the true power of music to raise morale for these overseas soldiers and truly help them process or distract them from overarching discomforts or pain of being away from their families for months or more at a time in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place. I decided then that I wanted to pursue a career path that would combine music and compassion for others.
I completed my educational training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and my clinical training through the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine in New York. For my internship I was placed in maternity, NICU and pediatric inpatient units and have never looked back.
I acquired additional training to earn dual credentials as a board-certified music therapist and a certified child life specialist and have worked with babies and mommies for almost ten years now!
In 2017, after working in the pediatric emergency department in New York City as part of the creative arts therapy team, I started to perceive that there was a gap to be bridged—that mommies and babies and young children should have more opportunities to experience the power of music to support developmental milestones; that families shouldn’t have to wait until an encounter in a hospital to understand and be educated about the power of music in prenatal care and infant and child development.
Soon after that, my journey took me back to my hometown of Tampa, Florida, where I started working full-time at St. Joe’s Children’s Hospital and seeing private clients in the community on the side.
During COVID-19, changes were made to my unit, and I saw more and more private clients where I provided private, in-home music groups to babies and mommies.
In the beginning of 2022 when my daughter was a few months old, I partnered with Taiylor, a friend from high school who was also a first-time mom and is honestly a creative genius. She wanted to develop the business into something more official with me, and we shared a vision. Being new moms and coming out of socially distanced COVID-19, we really wanted a place where we could build community, bring our little ones to foster social relationships, sensory play, music, art classes and more.
A third partner, Jen, also a new mom, joined us and the three of us got to work building curricula, learning how to start a business and growing The Sunflower Patch together.
How has your background in music and songwriting influenced your approach to music therapy and working with children?
Eileen Esposito: Berklee College of Music and New York City are two of the most creative places on the planet. You feel the human spirit responding to art and music when you’re there. Children respond to that energy intuitively: pre-language, pre-cognitive skills. There is an innate and intrinsic understanding of the language of music. You don’t need words, yet you can communicate a million different things.
My approach is in keeping with that belief and fostering opportunities for caregivers to realize that we all share this innate wisdom, and we are hardwired to use it. Before words, we have sounds and gestures. Before thoughts, we have melodies and rhythms.
It starts with the heartbeat. While still in utero, we learn and grow with music. To me, there is no separation—music and children go together like the sun and the earth. Scientific research supports that music lights up all areas of the brain, so the parts responsible for language, memory, behavior, sensory perception, motor skills– everything– can be activated, stimulated, developed and impacted by music in some way.
For children, particularly between the ages of 0-4 years old when the brain is growing most rapidly, music becomes one of the most powerful teaching tools. Music also has a huge social component. It creates a positive social atmosphere where little ones can connect and make joyful core memories. Evidence is now showing that confidence in social interactions and positive healthy relationships are more important for early childhood success than knowing your ABCs or counting.
Tell us about the Sunflower Patch, your vision, your partners and all that it has become.
Eileen Esposito: The Sunflower Patch is a 4,200-square-foot beautiful restored historic home in Hyde Park, with every room meticulously kept and highly curated. It is a toddler’s dream playhouse. We have imaginative and dramatic playrooms, music rooms, art and sensory rooms, a light play room, soft play, climbing, tunnels, a ball pit, books, bubbles and more.
During the week we run a dozen or so different styles of classes with half a dozen teachers, as well as host open play, private play dates and age-specific social mixers (playdates).
We are child led and play based, meaning we believe the research that supports that children learn best through play and by investigating what they are most naturally interested in. We follow evidence-based techniques published in American Academy of Pediatrics and Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child and are in the process of publishing our very own method integrating this research and our combined decades of experience, called The Ellis Method.
We keep our class sizes small (six to 10) to maximize the opportunities for meaningful learning and conversation. Additionally, we have monthly themed parties with professional photography for families. We also host birthday parties on the weekends.
Taiylor Wennik is a friend of mine from high school, and a brilliant visual artist. She also has played piano since a very young age and is responsible for creating our beautiful, themed spaces at the Sunflower Patch. She is also an incredible shopper and finds us some of the most creative and innovative supplies that are out there. People are constantly asking us to make an Amazon page so that they can find our curated materials. She’s also very talented at sales but did not want to return to it after having her daughter.
Jen Martin is a tenured teacher from Berkeley Preparatory School here in Tampa and has been teaching children for over 22 years. Just like Taiylor and myself, she did not want to return to work full-time away from her daughter after she had her in early 2022. The three of us became moms later in life and it hasn’t been as easy for us to find or build a community coming out of COVID-19 or find our tribe.
When we started getting together and brainstorming, we would run these little mini sessions with our own daughters and became so grateful for the friendship we were finding with each other and the friendship our daughters were finding with each other. As people began to show up for our little classes that we held in dance studios or people’s homes, we became more and more excited that we were creating the business of our dreams. We make a great team and balance each other out with our unique skill sets.
In what ways do you engage parents or caregivers at the Sunflower Patch, and how important is their involvement in supporting their child’s progress?
Eileen Esposito: We begin every single class in a circle which babies will start to do more of when they get to preschool and kindergarten. We circle up and engage the caregiver in the entire experience. I always say, “You can do this next activity WITH your baby, FOR them, or at your own pace, even if that means just passively listening.” I teach them simple finger-play songs, and hand-over-hand learning, but if they’d rather just sit and listen and sway to the music, then that can serve an important purpose as well.
There’s no wrong way! We just want caregivers to feel comfortable and empowered throughout the class. Fostering that dynamic within the caregiver-baby relationship builds confidence and trust between the baby and the caregiver so that later skills can develop in other areas.
Could you share any upcoming projects or collaborations that we can expect to see?
Eileen Esposito: We just added a monthly membership which is becoming our most popular option for families, and we added a sibling add-on option. Also, each month we are adding new classes and class times.
Our goal is to not only keep growing our amazing village here, but also to create opportunities for other working moms. Anytime you come to a class or an event, you can count on moms putting it together and making it happen! Our vendors, in-house contractors, everyone—we go to moms first to get the job done.
Also, we want to expand our reach and give back to our city. There are some charitable organizations, local schools and other children-focused companies or groups we’ve started planting roots in already, so you will see some of those partnerships blossoming soon!
What do you love to do most with your 2-year-old daughter in Tampa Bay?
Eileen Esposito: Come to The Sunflower Patch! It is a beautiful and fun space in a beautiful and fun part of the city, with endless, diverse play offerings. Especially in these hot and humid summer months, the AC is wonderful, and my toddler, like most toddlers, has boundless energy to expend! I love that she is learning and growing alongside me in such a cool environment, and with other like-minded families. It is the best!
Featured Image left to right: Jen Martin, Eileen Esposito, Taiylor Wennik
Photo credit: Artistry By Arielle | Originally published in August 2023 of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.