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Education class explores childhood environments

UMW News Bureau

outdoor art areaUniversity of Montana Western education professor Julie Bullard finished the last block of the spring 2010 semester by taking her Exploring Rich Early Childhood Environments class on a tour of early childhood facilities in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington April 19-23.

Early childhood education philosophy emphasizes the importance of environment when children are learning. The class explored different ways facilities use the environment to enhance learning.

“Students will be able to take back what they learned and use it based on their role [as educators],” Bullard said.

Bullard also said the class included people in a variety of roles as educators, ranging from college instructors and school administrators to classroom teachers.

Many of the environments the class visited were inspired by the famous early childcare facilities Reggio Emilia in Italy and Waldorf, which originated in Germany. Both emphasize the importance of aesthetically beautiful learning environments. Bullard said those schools heavily stressed “believing in the magic of childhood and the importance of imagination.”

Student Wendy Cornell said the unique learning environments were easily evident visiting the schools.

“I learned that rich early childhood environments are not cookie cutter preschools,” Cornell said.

North Idaho College Children’s Center in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, one of the facilities the class visited, provided an example of how important it is for young children to see images of themselves by taping photographs of the infants on the floor where the infants would be most likely to see themselves. Some of the rooms for older children had a small tree called the Family Tree with pictures of the children’s family members hanging from the branches.

“It’s important that families feel welcome and included because families are the most important part in education,” said Bullard.

The North Idaho College Children’s center also showed Bullard’s students how providing learning opportunities and thought-provoking items to children allows them to create projects and activities on their own. The North Idaho facility had an outdoor sandbox with real shovels and a water pump, which prompted the children to dig their own pond and river as well as create a bridge.

“You need to look outside the box,” student Jen Biehl said. “You need to be creative and believe the space you’re working with is transformable.”

Children in another facility, the Community Building Children’s Center in Spokane, Wash., observed the construction of a food store across the street, and once it was completed, made several trips to the store. In order to make that experience part of their learning environment, the teachers and children created their own food store inside their classroom with real cans of beans and vegetables and boxes of food.

“I came back inspired to make changes in my own environment,” said Cornell, who runs the Blessings Abound Family Childcare center in Bozeman, Mont.

One of the goals for the class was to show students what facilities in other states are doing so they can apply those ideas to children’s environments in Montana.

“It’s important to continue to work on children’s environments in Montana so we can design beautiful environments full of learning opportunities for children,” said Bullard.

Debbie Hansen, director of Curious Minds, a childcare facility on the Montana Western campus, said, “We can take bits and pieces from what we saw on the tour and implement them back into our school.”

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