UC Horizons Article

Mary Niehaus received the Award of Merit for feature writing by the International Association of Business Communicators for this article.

Arlitt Preschool
Not just kid stuff

University of Cincinnati HORIZONS May 1999, pp. 26-27, 29-31.
© 1999 by the University of Cincinnati.
No part of this article may be reproduced without prior permission of the editors.
All rights reserved.

by Mary Niehaus

Talking animals are out. So are Halloween masks. Forget smiley-face stickers for good behavior, and no corrections or superfluous praise for a child's work, please.

Preschool children grow better without these adult intrusions, as UC students in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program know. They see the evidence every time they observe and practice teaching in the university's highly regarded campus preschool, the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center.

Although most adults consider Never Never Land and fairy tales a part of every child's world, preschool administrator Vicki Carr tells a story to illustrate why they are taboo at Arlitt.

"One of our teachers, Sally Moomaw, has a little bunny in her classroom as a pet," the educator explains. "She and the children were talking about this bunny: where the bunny lived, what it ate and so on. Then, one child began to insist that, yes, that bunny in the cage is fine; it eats carrots and doesn't talk. But bunnies that live in the woods wear little coats with buttons, and they live in little houses and talk!"

To avoid that kind of confusion, the Arlitt staff works hard to be "a reality-based preschool," says Carr, Arlitt's director for professional development and direct services to families and children. "The way young children interpret reality is very different from the way an adult interprets it. We can discriminate between fantasy and reality. A young child really doesn't."

Dedication to providing a curriculum matched to developmental needs explains why the preschool's well-stocked bookshelves are missing a few children's literature classics. No "Three Little Pigs." No "Little Red Riding Hood." No Disney movies starring Bambi, Tramp, or Simba. All would be considered inappropriate for children at this age.

Costumes that hide familiar faces present another problem. "Halloween is very scary for young children," Carr confirms. "They don't discriminate between the person in the mask and whatever that mask depicts. Once an adult puts on the mask, he's no longer mommy or daddy, brother or sister. He is the monster; she is the ghost."

Understanding how young children think, and the cultural and social diversity in their families, Arlitt does not celebrate any holidays with parties at school. "What we do is accept all the children and the holidays that they celebrate," Carr says. "If the children want to talk about a holiday, then we talk about it."

There is a kind of magic at Arlitt, but it has nothing to do with imaginary animals or talking toys. UC students working toward a master's in early childhood education or school psychology, a bachelor's in ECE, a Child Care Technology associate degree, or a Child Development Associate credential can see the educational philosophy taught by their professors literally come to life before their eyes. That was true for Monica Deans, who completed her master's work at UC last spring and is now a member of the Arlitt staff.

"It was so nice to see the things we learned in class implemented by the teachers at Arlitt," Deans says. "It helped solidify everything for me, to see it in practice: the wonderful room setup, the learning experiences for the children, the interaction between child and teacher and the interaction with families. They really implemented 'appropriate practice' for young children."

As a student, Deans felt so welcome at Arlitt. The lead teacher she observed was "very helpful, very open to helping me learn," she points out. "I didn't just sit and watch. I prepared lesson plans and interacted with the children."

Information sharing and the supportive advice of more experienced teachers continue to be appreciated by Deans, whether she is working with her preschool class or instructing UC students who are earning a Child Development Associate credential.

True to their constructivist view of child education, the preschool teachers create opportunities for the children to "construct" knowledge in various developmental areas. Making decisions, solving problems, and becoming creative thinkers are activities very much encouraged by the teachers.

"We try to build our program around the knowledge that we have about child development, and what we know about what children understand cognitively, what they're able to do socially and physically," Carr says. "We try to demonstrate to them how to problem-solve issues that arise, instead of making their decisions for them."

That's why Arlitt's parent handbook requests that classroom volunteers ask children the kind of questions about their work that require thinking, rather than an obvious answer. For example: "Do you have enough shells so that everyone in your family can have one?" is preferred to "How many shells do you have?"

If children make an error in math, volunteers are urged not to correct them, since "correction gives them the idea they should look to adults for the answers." The process preschoolers go through, parents are told, is much more important than the finished product.

Curiosity about the world is encouraged at Arlitt. When asked how ice is made, Moomaw turned the question back to the children. It was evident that few had experienced the process, since one of the first ideas they tried was mixing flour and water together. The experiments continued, as suggestions flew and formulas were pronounced. Milk? Spaghetti sauce? Finally they found the answer.

If the teacher had merely given them the solution, her pupils would have missed "the joy of going through the process of discovery," the educator points out. Instead, they enjoyed a shared learning experience they would remember for a long time.

Angel Jacobs, a student in UC's Child Care Technology program, marveled at how well 3- and 4-year-olds learn to interact with one another to solve problems. She spent 200 hours practice teaching in the preschool's full-day classroom during the autumn quarter of 1998.

"Arlitt really focuses on what I call a 'mini' child democracy," Jacobs says. "Children are free to speak, and are encouraged to express their feelings, even if there's a conflict. They each have their own vote."

When a conflict did arise, the student teacher learned to avoid jumping in immediately to solve it for the children. "I would sit back and wait to see if they could find a solution for themselves," she confirms. "Involving the children is a wonderful strategy. It's a more developmental way, encouraging the children to talk among themselves to find a solution."

Jacobs gave an example of how this worked. Four children stood at a learning station that held dried beans, three scoops, three buckets, and three funnels. Two were playing with one set of tools and another child had the other two scoops. A fourth child snatched one scoop away from the child who had two. Both began to cry.

When the child who had lost a scoop complained to Jacobs, she replied: "You can tell Eric you did not like that." When the child followed the student teacher's suggestion, Eric gave back the scoop and told his friend that he was sorry. Problem solved.

Of all the things that can cause disagreement among young children, it seems that diversity has very little impact. Individual differences have been valued at Arlitt ever since the campus unit was founded in 1926 by UC professor and psychologist, Ada Hart Arlitt.

Anne Dorsey, a former Arlitt director and now a UC professor of early childhood/special education, reports that the population of the preschool did become more homogeneous during the 1950s. That's when Arlitt's excellent reputation caused some families to start pre-enrolling their children at birth, and classes were crowded with the offspring of UC faculty, who paid half-tuition rates.

Since 1972, when the Arlitt Center formed a partnership with Head Start, the diversity of the student population has markedly improved. Today there are not only children from different races, cultures, and socioeconomic levels, but also a number with disabilities and developmental concerns. Every child takes part, as much as possible, in regular classroom activities. Total inclusion has a high priority.

Arlitt's success in effectively meeting the needs of such a diverse group of families and children is a source of much pride for Lawrence Johnson, the program's executive director and associate dean for educational research. "We've been able to break down the myth that diverse groups can't get together and celebrate their differences," he says. [Note: Dr. Johnson is now Dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Education.]

An example of a successful inclusion experience involved a child with autism who initially tried to cope with his new surroundings by screaming and crying. The Arlitt staff patiently helped him learn the classroom routine. Although the other children kept their distance at first, when they saw this child cooperating with the staff, they willingly accepted him as part of their group.

"I like the fact that we work with a variety of children - and teachers," new staff member Deans says. "I personally think that it's important for young children to be around children from all walks of life. It enriches the classroom. That's what I was looking for."

Children with disabilities can't always manipulate materials - such as blocks or Legos - the way other youngsters can. The Arlitt staff know how to provide just enough "hand over hand" support so that the child can be successful, without having someone else actually do it for them.

"That's a skill and a talent that comes with practice - and thinking," Carr says. "We have some teachers at Arlitt who are fabulous at it."

Child Care Technology student Jacobs calls the diversity of the Arlitt classroom "fascinating." When she did her practice teaching, two children in her care spoke no English at the beginning of the school year.

"One child felt so intimidated," Jacobs recalls. "She couldn't understand what was being said; she cried a lot. It was amazing to see her progress in just a couple of months. She would still do a lot of pointing, but now she was speaking to the other children, asking them to play with her."

"We do a lot of reading in the classroom. We put together words. We use a lot of repetition. All that helps children learn. If you walked through that classroom today, you would never know the difficulty this child once experienced."

This year the children at Arlitt speak nine different languages, and their families represent an equal number of home countries. In general, language differences do not seem to bother the preschoolers. They find ways to make friends and play together.

One of the first things university students are told when they come to Arlitt is to remind the children to "use their words" when they are having a problem. But, as associate director Carr points out, if children do not have words that are appropriate, they need the teacher to supply some. Teacher Connie Corkwell tells a story that drives home the message of what can happen when this advice is not heeded.

A child who spoke very little English was coping fairly well in an Arlitt classroom. Then, when he went outside on the playground, someone took the tricycle he wanted to ride. He became very upset. The student teacher saw his distress and called to him: "Use your words! Use your words!" The child knew only a couple of English words that fit his emotion, so that is what he yelled. Unfortunately, he surprised everyone by shouting an obscenity!

But the attitude at Arlitt is problem solving, not blaming, even though the preschool teachers set extremely high standards for themselves. "If something goes wrong here, it's thought about; it's talked about; it's processed. Nothing is taken lightly," Carr maintains.

"When you move, as we do, from a very strong center - a very strong theory base - you weigh everything you do to see whether or not it fits into your philosophical approach," she says. "There's a lot of pressure to do not just a great job, but an exemplary job, because our teachers are here to support UC students and to demonstrate for the community the best practice of working with children and families."

Students, educators, and child-care professionals from the Tri-State area - and beyond - frequently visit UC to learn how Arlitt works. Observation rooms with one-way glass allow visitors to view the process without disturbing the class.

Last year, Arlitt formed a new partnership with UC Child Care, as a way to explore community needs for full-day services and to give university students additional practical experience. Arlitt's lead teachers are providing professional development and technical support to the Child Care staff - offering suggestions for classroom arrangement and ideas for working with young children - and inviting them to attend the same teacher in-service programs they do.

Her staff has presented in-service days for Hamilton County Community Action Agency Head Start teachers, Carr adds. A discussion of arts, language, music, and literacy concepts concludes with a "make it-take it" session where teachers construct teaching games for their own classroom use.

Arlitt's teachers are, in fact, extremely knowledgeable about what they do, and their expertise is in demand in many areas. Ohio Head Start, for example, has asked Arlitt's help in developing new programs and processes to be used in centers across the state, and a national publishing house has expressed interest in having Arlitt create early childhood materials for its market.

In 1996, UC graduate students in early childhood education participated in a statewide evaluation of Head Start programs, conducted by executive director Johnson and Arlitt's director of evaluation services, Deborah Zorn. Results of the study, which was funded by the Ohio Department of Education, were accepted by [then-]Gov. George Voinovich at the end of 1997. Last summer, Johnson was invited to speak about the study at a national education conference in Washington, D.C.

The executive director points out that it is UC's excellence both in service for children and in educational research that have brought Arlitt accolades like "one of Ohio's best programs," "a model for the nation," and "cutting edge professional practice." "There are a lot of places that may do a good job with children, but don't do the research," he notes. "Others may do fine research, but are not as good at direct services. We've been able to demonstrate that we can do both."

"We do see ourservles as a resource for the university population, for this community and the greater community-at-large," associate director Carr confirms. "Here at Arlitt, we know how to do preschool programs - and we know how to do them really well."