Small classroom, big benefits

Therese Boyd
March 02, 2016

ALTOONA, Pa. — Congratulations — you got the job! But what about child care? When considering a job offer, parents often have to factor in the availability and convenience of daycare, whether on-site or nearby. Numerous studies have shown that when daycare is easily accessible to work, employers and employees both profit, with less absenteeism and tardiness, better morale and company loyalty. Everyone wins!

What about daycare next to a college? Yes, employees and employers benefit. But with a bit of creative thinking and some cooperation between the school and the preschool, the students — whether they're 4 or 21—benefit as well. Tucked on one corner of the Penn State Altoona campus is the Child Development Center, a Montessori-based preschool where, says director Andrea Okonak, college students get "hands-on experience" by working with the preschoolers — something, she says, "you can't learn in a college classroom, it's real life."

A surprising variety of academic majors are able to take advantage of this real-life experience. For a semester-long, in-depth involvement, students may apply to be interns at the center. Lauren Jacobson, instructor in human development and family studies (HDFS), coordinates the intern program and supervises the interns. She says that if HDFS students "express an interest in early childhood development" she encourages them to apply to intern at the campus center or at Penn-Mont Academy in Hollidaysburg, which offers child care from 18 months to sixth grade. Jacobson believes that the best learning experience can come from "pushing yourself out of the comfort zone" and interning is part of that. Most students have little to no experience in a workplace and need to build a persona around work and professionalism. Sometimes pushing them to places where they would be less comfortable but in a supportive environment helps them learn.

"We try to start preparing them in their sophomore year," Jacobson said, "when we introduce them to professional skills and bring in different professionals to talk about what the students want to do with their lives. We always bring in early childhood professionals to talk to students." Students who choose early childhood education must fill out an application for the internship, developing "five learning objectives that link to a theory we've talked about in class, such as learning theory (Skinner), social learning theory (Bandura), or Piaget's cognitive development theory," she explains. "The internship gives the students opportunities to explore those theories, and what the application of the theory looks like; for example, they can examine differences between boys' and girls' reactions to punishment or the challenges of applying reward strategies in the classroom setting."

In the beginning of the semester, Okonak says, new interns at the campus center "are introduced to the Montessori method of education, which is a style of teaching that is very child-centered and focused on the whole child. The interns have a few days of observation" because the Montessori approach, where "teachers are facilitators and students have opportunities to choose their own work, might be a new experience for the intern. They learn how to work with the kids one on one and participate in our small and whole group activities as well." During the internship, in addition to thirty-two hours a week in the center, students are required to take field notes and case notes, write papers on developmental theories and social policy, as well as develop, implement, and evaluate an application project. In addition, they will make a formal presentation to faculty about their experience.

For those not familiar with the Montessori method, Okonak assures that while the approach is different from the traditional classroom, the essentials of education are not abandoned. "We do math, we do language, we have our cultural curriculum"; as part of that culture, "we have, of course, art and music. Every other week we take our kindergarten students to Hawthorn for a music class with Christina Black." Penn State Altoona's lecturer in music, Black teaches a class on music for classroom teachers, "a requirement to instruct them on music pedagogy," Black says. She put together the center's children with her students when "about three years ago a student in my class, Kylee Meyer, was working at the center and she talked about that interaction. Once the program had started here I thought it'd be a good way for my students to have children to work with."

For the music lessons, Black says, "my students are the teachers, they are in charge. It's a fantastic experience for them. Not only are they able to teach children and try out pedagogy that we talk about in class, but they get to see the small instruments, the rhythm patterns; it's a great experience for my students." Black sees a real advantage to having small children available for teaching lessons. "It's very awkward for my students to teach children's songs to their peers; it's not the same as working with children who actually react in ways you might not expect them to." She is very pleased with the results; she says that working with the children from the center "really enhanced my course."

Jacobson agrees that being exposed to the little ones in the Child Development Center adds so much more to the college education experience for future teachers. "You have to go back to that place of what it is like to be three, four, five years old. That can be challenging. The students need to understand that kids don't always understand the rules. We don't always recognize the importance of really understanding that they are not just not physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially equipped like us, but they are always actively processing information, they are constantly learning, so it's vital for students to understand what it means to be a preschooler developmentally to promote the best experiences for children."

Not all students take part in internships, but many still get exposure to the preschool classroom at the center. Kristen Pearson, coordinator of student field placements, supervises early field experiences for the education program. "I place the students in various schools and preschools throughout the county. We really value the relationship we have with the center. It's an invaluable resource." Pearson begins when students are sophomores. "The earlier we can get them in the classes, to show them what teaching is all about, what education is all about, before they make the formal entrance into the major of education, the better."

Observation can happen one of two ways. Some students are in the center with the preschoolers and teachers. Pearson says, "They get to interact in a classroom environment and observe the teachers. Students walk in with an idea of what to look for. It's really nice to be able to interact with teachers and the preschoolers." The other type of observation is behind a window so that the center's class is not disturbed. "We discuss what the students are seeing, I can interact, and they get the authentic observation experience. We can have our own little class in the hallway. I'm so fortunate to help these students get their real experiences."

Kylee Meyer did her pre-student teaching practicum at the Child Development Center. "I had never heard of Montessori before. All I was told was 'child development center on campus.' The first day I was in shock. I had never seen anything like it. The teachers give you direction on how you can help the children succeed; it's all about creating independence for the children." After Meyer completed her required seventy hours, "they asked me if I wanted to work here as an assistant teacher. I was here for three years, so the children got to see a consistent person. When I left, it was really hard."

Meyer's time with the children taught her about the full spectrum of responsibilities for a teacher. "My job is more than teaching math and language — things like social skills and how to unpack your lunch. My main job is curriculum but I'm also a mentor to students, giving them advice and guidance. Montessori is very hands-on learning with numerous activities from simple to complex, and concrete to abstract. It's about following the child." Meyer's time at the center changed her life direction. After earning her bachelor's degree, she spent a year in Virginia teaching in a public school but soon realized she wanted to be in a Montessori school. She took a year's training in New York and now is a full-time Montessori teacher at the place she started: Penn State Altoona's Child Development Center.

Sometimes one good thing — in this case, daycare next to employment — brings so many unforeseen benefits. By having the Child Development Center right next to campus, Penn State Altoona students across a range of disciplines have the opportunity to observe and work with both small children and experienced teachers in their "real-life" environment. Yes — everybody wins.

  • Daycare performance

    Staff and children from the Child Development Center took part in the annual African American Read-In on campus. The children performed old folk songs collected by the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston with Christina Black and her Music 241 students.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated March 29, 2017