Richard sits on the rug listening to his teacher read Over on the Farm.After absorbing enough information about animals, the 2-year-old decides to check out the real thing. He gets up and strolls to the classroom fish tank, which he studies intently for a while before moving on to the water table, a four-legged basin filled with cups, boats, plastic fish, and other water toys. Other children are variously occupied with the room's many books, stuffed animals, and toys, including a large, brightly colored playhouse with slides. It could be chaos, but it's not. Over on the rug, the reading group continues without pause. Assistant teachers move throughout the room, providing quiet guidance without disturbing anyone's play.
      This is the "blue room" at the Bernice M. Wright Child Development Laboratory School, located in the M-17 building in the Slocum Heights area of South Campus. Four days a week, children ages 2 to 5 are learning in this building-as are their teachers and their teachers' teachers. Run by the College for Human Development's Department of Child and Family Studies, the school is a center for teacher training and faculty research. It is also a place where independence and individuality are stressed over the three R's. "Many parents ask, 'Do you teach ABCs and counting?' says Scharman Grimmer G'98, interim director of the school. "Our philosophy is to be child-directed, to help the children use their environment to explore and learn. So you'll see us singing the ABCs and talking about words, but we don't do the letter of the week. We focus on social development between children and other children, and between children and teachers."
      The school's three classrooms—color-coded blue, red, and yellow and divided by age—are run by graduate students. Assistant teachers are undergraduates studying early childhood education. Mirrored-glass windows and microphones in each classroom allow observers to watch and listen without affecting what goes on inside. "It's exciting to see the teacher-child and child-child interactions from this view," says Grimmer, who taught in the red and yellow rooms as a graduate student. Undergraduate classes use the windows to observe language and social development. Graduate students collect data for their theses. Faculty members conduct studies. And parents see how their children fare away from the nest.
      The school was founded in 1970—long before on-site day care was prevalent—as a cooperative effort by the College for Human Development and students who had young children. It was named for the late Bernice M. Wright, dean of the college from 1964 through 1973. Through the years the school expanded to include children of faculty and staff members and families in the community. Despite not having a full-day program, the school is at capacity, with more than 100 children enrolled. "We have some families who feel so strongly about the program that they bus their children in from a day care center, or pick up their children in the afternoon and take them to a different center," Grimmer says. "That's a big family commitment."
      Grimmer says the school's present name, changed last year from the Bernice M. Wright Nursery School, reflects its three-fold mission: providing an optimal early childhood setting, teacher training, and research opportunities.

Bernice Wright's educational program is based on a "constructivist" orientation—the belief that a child actively constructs knowledge through interaction with physical and social environments. "Teachers provide a variety of developmentally appropriate and open-ended activities that allow children to create and experiment with their own ideas," Grimmer says. "Children also have many opportunities to become involved in group activities that promote cooperative effort and sharing of ideas."
      The program's goals include encouraging active curiosity and enthusiasm for learning; developing problem-solving skills; supporting individual creative expression; promoting cooperative social interactions; making children part of a classroom community that cares about each of its members; and developing self-confidence and positive self-esteem.

                                                                                                Photography by John Dowling

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