“Outside so cold. It’s like a polar bear winter,” a preschooler says. Two pigtails peek from beneath her knitted hat as she shivers her arms playfully, standing in a warm room surrounded by other children.
In the corner, a teacher consults a crying boy who’s struggling to learn the idea of sharing.
Here at Towsley Children’s House, toddlers socialize and learn preschool education basics, often with the help of University students. Towsley, located on South Forest Avenue, is a University-affiliated, play-based learning program for young children, where some University faculty and students also pursue research opportunities.
Language learning is a key part of the children’s education at Towsley. Beth Blanchard, the director of Towsley Children’s House, said this is because English is a second language for many of the children, and their language skills are still developing.
“Some (toddlers and preschoolers) speak two languages, some three,” Blanchard said. “It’s always astonishing how quickly they learn English.”
Because members of the University community receive priority for their children’s enrollment, Blanchard said the diversity of infants, toddlers and preschoolers is representative of University faculty, staff and graduate students.
As Blanchard was talking, the pigtailed girl approached again, smiling and pantomiming an exaggerated shiver, her knees wiggling just below an orange-and-white flaring skirt.
“It’s just so cold. It’s like polar bear winter,” she said once again, running off as Blanchard responded with a smile.
Blanchard pointed out the window to the spot where Village Corner, the longtime campus convenience store, was recently demolished.
“Children are loving watching the construction,” she said, adding that they take occasional field trips across the street to see the site.
The pigtailed girl reappeared once again.
“It’s just so cold. It’s just like polar bear winter,” she said.
“Good thing you have your hat on to keep you warm,” Blanchard responded.
But Towsley offers more than an early education for children. It also allows University students hands-on experience for research.
University students from Psychology 307: Practicum in Child Development and Child Care assist Towsley teachers for firsthand, research-based experience in developmental psychology.
LSA senior Amy Schoenherr is volunteering at Towsley this semester after working there in the fall as well.
“The goal is to see them grow,” Schoenherr said, referring to the children she observes.
Each Psych 307 student is assigned to a classroom to work with infants, toddlers or preschoolers ranging from ages one month to 5.5 years old. Schoenherr assists professional teachers in a classroom of toddlers aged 15 months to 2.5 years old.
“Our class is very, very much about the children. What they want and what they need, we really try to fulfill,” Schoenherr said.
Nursing students and University students in Alpha Delta Pi sorority located next door to Towsley also help out at the children’s center. Kinesiology students occasionally teach physical education courses as well, Blanchard said.
She added that because of the Psych 307 course, University volunteers are mostly psychology students.
Schoenherr said the practicum course focuses on teaching University students about conflicts in the classroom as well as the benefits of play and why policies about child development and preschool programs exist.
“What we see in the classroom, we put into (a) paper,” Schoenherr said.
Schoenherr said one essay she wrote for her psychology class addressed separation anxiety and the struggles young children have when their parents drop them off in the morning.
“They’re learning to play together, which is shocking because kids are egocentric,” Schoenherr said. “It’s something that is hard for them, but they’ve definitely come a long way.”
Play-based programs, Schoenherr said, are often misconstrued.
“People think all they do is play, but they’re really learning a lot,” she said, adding that play-based programs have been shown to benefit child development through the “very stimulating” nature of the programs.
“We teach gross-motor skills, fine-motor skills, language, the simple stuff like colors, numbers, the alphabet. They love music. They love to paint and color,” Schoenherr said, adding that the kids also enjoy being read to.
After taking the practicum last semester, LSA senior Alexia Simons, who works with the toddler age group, also decided to stick around this semester. She now works at Towsley for her paid work-study job.
“It helps me to know that I do want to work with kids,” Simons said
Simons said caring for the children is structured but surprising.
“It’s something new every day,” she said. “It’s fun work because you don’t know what to expect. There’s a schedule, but there’s different activities everyday.”
Projects from the Psych 307 students and the youngsters cover the walls and ceilings of Towsley.
Both Schoenherr and Simons said the children’s learning motor and language skills are a vital part of the Towsley curriculum. Teaching the kids to walk and talk can be challenging, Schoenherr said, but it has really taught her the value of patience.
“Language acquisition — how much they are able to express themselves and their wants — that’s really most shocking,” she said.
Children entering the program typically aren’t at ease around other children, Simons said.
“Some of them didn’t talk a lot, weren’t that comfortable,” she said. “A lot of them, this is the first time with students of their age.”
But with time and help from the practicum students, the children start to open up.
“(It’s) crazy in that we can get a group of 10 to 12 toddlers to actually sit and sing songs (together),” Schoenherr said. “It’s just amazing what some of these kids are capable of doing and how young they really are.”
One afternoon before recess, three preschoolers march out in a single file line and sit on a bench in a hall of Towsley. A teacher ties their shoes. Bundled up in snow gear, they then march outside.
A girl drags around a purple sled. A boy watches two girls swing. A bench shaped like a butterfly remains empty, surrounded by fresh snow. From the top of a mushroom-shaped fountain, a teacher reaches for an icicle for a child. A boy sits alone on a pile of snow, hands in his lap, watching a teacher chase around three children, all three fighting to keep balance, toddling through the snow.