Rachel Richard, a junior elementary education major at EMU, helps an Early Learning Center student cut apples for a snack period. (Photo by Michael Reilly, Daily News Record)

EMU’s Early Learning Center provides hands-on opportunity for education majors

Ride by Park View Mennonite Church on any given weekday afternoon, and you might catch a glimpse of toddlers harvesting vegetables, digging in the sandbox or just generally being kids.

“They’re pretending a bear is after them right now,” said Rachel Diener, director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Early Learning Center, laughing while watching four boys pedaling hurriedly away from a pretend foe on their tricycles.

Meanwhile, another boy scoops up loot in a sandbox nearby.

“He prefers to play by himself,” Diener explained. “We let him.”

Later, the group examines two bins full of tomatoes and potatoes that the kids harvested themselves — vegetables that will later make their way into soup the students will help to cook.

“We try to show them the continuity of things, that things are interrelated,” Diener says, adding that students planted corn in the school garden last year, later harvesting, shelling and grinding it into cornmeal to make corn muffins. “We want them to know where things come from, that you can plant a seed in the ground and it can grow. … We want them to make connections and understand processes.”

In addition to her director role, Diener teachs the 4- and 5-year-old class at the Early Learning Center, which has been renting space at the church since the preschool started in 1977. This is Diener’s 21st year with the university’s so-called “laboratory preschool,” meaning students in EMU’s education department complete practicums there.

The developmental preschool “allows children to be children, exploring the world, developing in an unhurried way, and learning for the joy of learning,” according to its website.

In practical application, that means the preschool room doesn’t have a computer, for one thing.

“We used to but we took it out because all of these children have computers at home; they have plenty of time to do that,” Diener said. “In here, we want them to experience real objects, hands on things, rather than sitting and looking at a screen.”

It means that the kids are given relatively free reign of the classroom during playtime and told to choose whatever activity suits their respective interests. They can measure and organize objects in the sensory table, climb into a large bathtub to read books, or paint creations on easels, to name a few of the stations available to students’ imaginations in the large classroom.

It means the kids get a healthy dose of nature, art and music daily, with at least 30 minutes of outdoors playtime during every two-and-a-half-hour day.

The program stays developmental despite pressures to “incorporate inappropriate academics,” Diener says.

“There are pressures to push reading and memorization — that kind of rote learning — down into lower and lower grades,” she added. “It’s not even a grade, you know, it’s preschool.”

Hidden Treasure

The preschool has its ups and downs in enrollment, and this fall, it’s down.

Though the 2-year-old class that meets Tuesdays and Thursdays is full, with eight children enrolled and a waiting list, the 3-year-old class that meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only has seven of its 12 spots filled. The 4-year-old class, which meets every weekday except for Wednesdays, is only half full, with seven out of 14 spots filled.

Many people, upon discovering the center, say they hadn’t heard of it before, Diener says, making the preschool a sort of hidden “treasure,” as she puts it.

Raving Reviews

One parent, Elizabeth Fletchall, is very glad she found out about the Early Learning Center upon moving to Dayton from Roanoke.

She takes two of her three sons — 5-year-old Will and 2-year-old Benjamin — to the preschool. She says she “absolutely” plans to take her youngest to the center when he’s old enough.

“We kind of stumbled into the [Early Learning Center] and were just amazed,” Fletchall said, adding that the preschool’s laboratory status is helpful for the students.

“It certainly teaches the students to be flexible,” she said. “[The EMU students] have different personalities, so each [is] going to bring something different to the classroom. … It also means, as a parent, that the [center] is current on everything, up on the latest in childhood development.”

She says the preschool is “instilling a love of learning” into Will and Benjamin, adding that the teachers also have great communication with the parents.

For EMU students Rachel Richard and Brooke Gonzalez, as well as several other undergraduates, the center is providing a place for practical application of what they learn in the classroom this semester.

“It’s neat to get to see and work with the kids,” said Gonzalez, a 21-year-old senior from Mount Jackson.

“It was an awesome opportunity to get to create my own lesson and actually get to teach it on my own,” said Richard, a 20-year-old junior from Lancaster, Pa. who recently completed a class at the center on leaf shadings and leaf identification. The children picked leaves they liked off of trees around the preschool and took them inside for the lesson.

“Every activity that [the center has] children do, there’s a purpose behind it,” Richard said. “The [classroom] centers have been created with learning in mind.

Students can be learning even as they’re … ‘playing.’”

Courtesy Daily News Record, Oct. 29, 2013