Observation and first-hand experience are requirements for University of Southern Indiana students majoring in early childhood education. This year the Department of Teacher Education is utilizing the USI Children’s Learning Center in a more intentional partnership. The USI students receive placements that match their progression through the program.
“Our center is a convenient place to provide practical experience for USI students and such experience is needed to work effectively with young children,” said Amanda Wheaton-Collins, the center’s manager.
The USI Children’s Learning Center is now operating as a lab school under the direction of the Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education. Prior to this academic year, the center was administered in the Division of Outreach and Engagement.
“The center is an exceptional place for students to begin their teaching experience under the direction of the early childhood teacher education faculty and the Children’s Learning Center staff,” said Dr. Jill Raisor, assistant professor of teacher education. “As the USI students discuss early childhood content such as the complexity of children’s play, they will observe at the Children’s Learning Center and report back to the class on items such as what type of play they witness, what category the play fits, and what characteristics they notice which identify the actions as play. As they progress through the program, interaction with the children will increase from observing to actually teaching lessons. This will assist them in applying their textbook knowledge into an actual classroom experience.”
“Being naturally curious, the children like to interact with the USI students,” said Wheaton-Collins. “Questions like ‘Are you from the big kids’ school?’ and ‘Why do you wear your hair that way?’ are peppered on them. The education majors are trained on how to respond and interact with the children before being placed at the Children’s Learning Center.”
Raisor and Wheaton-Collins were both involved with the move to a laboratory school model. “Lab schools serve as model programs for future educators,” said Wheaton-Collins. “These programs offer a developmentally appropriate curriculum in a child-centered environment. Lab schools have experienced teaching staff and offer children more one-on-one attention. Due to collaboration between early childhood faculty, staff, and students, the Children’s Learning Center offers an environment based on the latest research and ideas about how young children learn.”
The Children’s Learning Center, created in the 1980s, serves as a facility for quality care for children while parents are working at USI or taking classes. It is a state-licensed facility, obtaining a Level 4 Paths to Quality rating, the highest possible rating in the state of Indiana, and accredited by the National Association for the Education of the Young Child (NAEYC).
“The Children’s Learning Center is a model of quality,” said Dr. Scott Gordon, dean of the Pott College. “It’s appropriate for USI and the Pott College to offer a laboratory school with a focus on research-based best practices. USI is an early childhood education leader and a pacesetter for new practices in early child care instruction for the region. The move to the lab school will further distinguish the Children’s Learning Center as a model for excellence.”
The Department of Teacher Education created an Early Childhood Education lab that allows USI students to actually manipulate child-sized furniture to create new arrangements which is a form of guidance and classroom management. They are able to work with age-appropriate items in order to plan activities for the children at the Children’s Learning Center. With the new partnership, the USI students not only work with the children at the Children’s Learning Center but the children also come to the “big kids’ school” to visit the Early Childhood Education Lab.
The transition to a lab school model, benefits faculty as well as students. For example, Raisor worked with the staff and children to plant an organic garden this summer. With the help of Gardening Committee to steer the project, the staff supervised as the children planted squash, tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables and herbs. Raisor was able to document this process as part of her research interest in social emotional development and self-regulation. The planted items, nurtured by the children, were used as educational tools inside the classroom. “We incorporated math, science, cooking, and nutrition in the activities associated with the garden,” said Wheaton-Collins. The culminating event for the garden was the opportunity for the children to enjoy recipes such as squash casserole and eggplant stir fry with other classes at the center as well as have a plentiful amount of cherry tomatoes readily available!
Pott College funds upgrades
Through funds allocated from the Pott College, the Children’s Learning Center was able to purchase new materials and supplies for the classrooms such as new learning materials for the children including puzzles and blocks, rugs and curtains to maintain a home-like environment, new play houses for the playground, and a new storage building for outdoor learning materials.
A productive model
After taking a course Raisor was teaching, one student said, “I have planned lessons before, but never gotten the opportunity to actually implement them with children this age.”
“The future for early childhood education is very exciting,” said Raisor. People are starting to recognize the importance of high-quality care and education for young children. Research reports that by age five, at least 85 percent of a child’s brain is developed. (Evansville Business Journal, Progress Edition 2012).
“We must realize what a lasting impact the early years have on a child and work with young children in developmentally appropriate manners,” said Raisor.