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A different kind of pre-school

March 30, 2008
NEW ULM — If you are looking for that hard-to-find option — an all-day, every-day pre-school — you may want to give the Martin Luther College Early Childhood Learning Center a very close look.

It’s a pre-school unlike too many others; a stimulating, yet not overwhelming, environment for young children.

The center offers the academic seriousness associated with elementary school-sponsored pre-Kindergarten options. Yet it also has some of the informality associated with a family-style environment — the children, aged 3-5, are placed in mixed-age groups, for example.

During several recent visits to the center, I had a chance to observe a stimulating, yet also orderly, I almost want to say, serene, atmosphere. I think that had to do with the children being engaged in experiences that kept them interested and involved — and the teachers’ ability to maintain control in calm, non-threatening ways.

The program centers around a “whole-child” philosophy, explained two of its key proponents, Sheryl Lumis, a professor of education who founded the center 10 years ago, and Cathy Biedenbender, its director.

Written materials, as well as the center's leaders, explained the idea in terms of "providing early learning experiences that assist parents in nurturing their pre-schoolers’ spiritual, physical, intellectual and social development."

The staff believes that this goal can be reached when children learn by doing — by hands-on, active experiences that are developmentally appropriate.

Children develop best when all experiences occur in an atmosphere of "Christian love, care, trust and respect," the staff also believes.

Specifically, these goals are accomplished with:

* activities that exercise children’s bodies;

* experiences and stories that encourage children to explore the world, to solve problems and to express feelings;

* a social environment that encourages children to play and talk with each other and adults; and

* teachers who recognize the individuality of each child’s abilities and needs.

The curriculum is research-based and time-tested. It builds the day around child (and, of course, teacher) guided sets of experiences that encourage children to think.

In practice, it involves a significant amount of team planning by teachers; they assess where children are in their development, and “plan it out from there.”

As a result, unlike the practice at some other pre-schools, the experiences here are rarely planned around "themes."

Because of the individuality of experiences, the center maintains a huge range of materials (various manipulatives, balls, scooters, blocks, books, art supplies, old pairs of shoes: anything can be a teaching aide).

“We have too much stuff,” Lumis laughs.

It is not that this school thinks lightly of the more tangible aspects of school readiness that are easier for parents to see — that is, things like letter recognition, or specific, measurable math skills, for example.

The center takes what I think is a "deeper" approach to being “school-ready” — by working on things such as self-regulation, self-help, the ability to attend.

There is a consistency to daily routines and organization — the day includes all those elements typical of a pre-school schedule: story time, planning and work time, clean-up, movement, music, snack, small group work, table activities, play time outside, etc.

But kids develop their own plan for “work-time” (which is 45 minutes long). After completing a project they are encouraged to re-cap, so teachers can assess “recall.”

Staffed by college professors and other qualified teachers, the center also exists for the benefit of would-be pre-school teachers.

It provides MLC early childhood education students with the chance for observation, participation and student teaching.

The student teachers rotate on a quarterly basis. Both permanent and student teachers bring in the benefits of up-to-date education research and practice to the pre-school “classroom."

“Yes, we are a lab school,” laughs Lumis. “But we don’t really perform experiments on your children.”

The center welcomes pre-schoolers without reference to race, religion, national or ethnic origin, gender or ability.

Lumis, however, also explains its Christian perspective.

Beside bringing the word of God to kids through Bible stories, she notes, the Christian outlook is reflected in the "set of expectations.”

“The way we interact is perhaps different from that in a secular setting,” Lumis notes, “behaving the way we do, out of love for Jesus.”

The pre-school offers various programming configurations: full or half-day; three, four or five days a week. Parents can choose the programming "intensity" for their children.

The center is licensed for 30 children.

For more information call Cathy Biedenbender at 507-233-9105.

Written by

Kremi Spengler

Photos by

Steve Muscatello

Article Photos

Singing and other activities are a part of each day at the pre-school.



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