By Camille Gillies

If you’ve lived in Tampa for a while, you may remember the gone-but-not-forgotten children’s attraction that once was adjacent to Lowry Park Zoo. Aptly named Safety Village, it was a nifty miniature suburb where kids explored and pretended they were the big shots in town. In addition to role playing and imagining, kids learned important lessons about traffic rules and safety. Memories of taking my child to that local attraction 20 years ago came flooding back when the nice folks at the Panda Hugs Child Care Learning Center on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. gave me a tour of their popular New Tampa preschool and introduced me to another pint-sized town, one they call Rainbow World.

Located within the Panda Hugs facility on BBD, just south of Tampa Palms (next to the Quest Martial Arts Center), Rainbow World is a room that is staged to resemble a small town, complete with a Publix and other stores and businesses that are familiar to young children. The kids can dress in costumes and create all sorts of scenarios. There are even steps leading to a passage over the storefronts, culminating with a slide into a pit full of balls. Panda Hugs’ Rainbow World combines a colorful world of amusement with a thought-provoking world of discovery.

For Sue Anne Allbaugh, founder and owner of Panda Hugs, this form of play integrates her own teaching philosophy into her innovative, kid-friendly curriculum.

“I believe that young children learn best when they learn through play,” explains Sue Anne, a veteran educator (see below). “At Panda Hugs, we provide many opportunities for children to explore and learn, and we do it in a way that is fun for them.”

Sue Anne speaks from experience – lots of it. She spent 35 years teaching kindergarten, first and second grade in New Jersey, New York, Texas and Ohio. She holds a Master’s degree in Education from Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, NY, and a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, OH.

Moving to Florida in the 1990s and intending to retire, Sue Anne felt compelled to continue enlightening young minds. In 1997, she decided to open a child-care center with her daughter, Andrea Driscoll. Demographic studies led to their New Tampa location south of Amberly Drive on BBD, and their subsequent success prompted the opening of another center in the Citrus Park area the following year.


VPK & More

The family-run business treasures its status as a Gold Seal and Accredited Professional Preschool Learning Environment (APPLE) and Panda Hugs also is a state-approved provider of Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK). Established by the State of Florida to encourage kindergarten readiness and educational success, VPK is offered free to all Florida residents who turn four years old on, or before, September 1. Since the program is subsidized by the state, participating centers, such as Panda Hugs, must pass strict accreditation standards.

Panda Hugs also participates in the Childcare Food Program (CCFP), which aims to incorporate nutritious breakfasts, lunches and snacks into childcare menus. Prepared in the school’s on-site kitchen, meals focus on fruits and vegetables that accompany a protein and milk. The USDA-approved program is sponsored locally by Cornerstone Family Ministries, a nonprofit organization that monitors the menus to ensure all nutritional requirements are met. All meals are included for students enrolled in full-time care.

Proud of her experienced and dedicated staff of teachers and teachers’ aides, Sue Anne says the school has very little teacher turnover and several teachers at Panda Hugs have been on the center’s staff for a decade or more.

“Grace, in the infant room, has been here for 17 years, and Elsa Espinosa, our director, has been here more than 10,” says Sue Anne.

Lead teachers at Panda Hugs all have earned their Child Development Associate (CDA) certificates, and most aides are certified as well. All teachers receive ongoing professional training.

When choosing teachers, Sue Anne says she looks for those who exhibit loving, happy personalities. They teach children ages six weeks through 12 years, stimulating each child’s intellectual curiosity and monitoring their progress at every stage. Teachers of every age group follow a weekly lesson plan that is tailored to their students’ level of development.

For example, teachers in the infant room may concentrate on fine and gross motor skills while preschool teachers work with children in interactive learning centers. Lesson plans are posted outside each teacher’s classroom. All teachers maintain profiles and portfolios of their students and hold parent-teacher conferences at least twice a year, as well as by parent request.

For older children, Panda Hugs provides before- and after-school care, which includes picking up school-age children from seven nearby elementary schools. This program, known as the Cool Kids Club, includes homework assistance, arts and crafts, cooking, games, outings and computers. Winter, spring and summer camps are available and feature trips to such attractions as MOSI (the Museum of Science and Industry), which is located nearby on E. Fowler Ave — as well as to Tampa International Airport (TIA), Lowry Park Zoo and Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde.

Whether they are toddlers, preschool or school age, all children are allowed plenty of time outside on the playground. While the walkers are burning off energy outside, babies inside the infant room are snuggled in for a nap in their own cribs, where they are cuddled, sung to and read Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

Natausha Jennings has been bringing her son, Khye, 10 months, to Panda Hugs since he was seven weeks old. While peeking at him from outside the infant room, Natausha sees Khye smiling and interacting with his playful teacher. She says Khye loves coming to Panda Hugs and she is pleased with the care he’s receiving.“I love his teacher and he is learning a lot,” she says. “He knows the meaning of words and he’s learned to wave.”

Since safety and security are of the utmost importance at Panda Hugs, the center installed an electronic entry system and issues key cards only to parents or caregivers. They also require computer sign-in once inside. Teachers are fully background-checked and trained in CPR and First Aid.

Panda Hugs is open Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., and is offering a Winter Enrollment Special that includes free registration and a free week of tuition. No coupon is required and the offer is good through March 31, 2013.

For more info, call 977-8195, visit, or stop by at 15051 BBD.

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