Children's School of SSU Fosters a Sense of Curiosity and Love for the Environment

May 29, 2024

Student teacher, Emma Wentz with preschoolers

Student staff blowing bubbles with toddlers

Bethany Lybeck Chapman, staff employee, reading to preschooler

Teacher at SSU's Children School taking toddlers for a campus stroll

Tucked into the northwest corner of SSU's sprawling campus is the Children's School. Considered a Child Development Laboratory for the children of university students, staff, faculty, and families, the School offers an enriched developmental program for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. 

"The Children's School is unique. We are very child-focused. We believe in creating a 'yes' environment, and think children should explore their independence, have the freedom to move, and spend as much time outside as they want," said Melissa Nelson, the School's Director.

It was in her senior year at SSU that Nelson found her way to the School. Lia Thompson-Clark, director and master teacher, and Lynne Lyle (Early Childhood Studies Lecturer), became her mentors. Although being a teacher was not Nelson's first choice, she said that once she started working at the Children's School, she wanted to learn more about the environment and curriculum, which led her to the master's program at the university. 

"It all just made sense to me. I knew we had something special here; it is a very nurturing environment," she said. 

Because Nelson worked her way through the School while in the undergraduate and master’s programs, she said she knows the student experience and could only create such a specialized experience for the children with their support. 

"I always tell our student teachers, we cannot do this without them," she said. 

Emma Wentz has been a student staff at the Children's School since 2022 and said, "It is a wonderful atmosphere." 

As a student at the SSU Hutchins School of Liberal Studies, Wentz said her studies are rooted in practicing a liberal teaching style, and the Children's School uses these techniques daily. 

With approaches like independent problem-solving and a curriculum called Living Systems focused on children finding their own rhythms and internal drives, Wentz said the School is exceptional in helping students identify their place in the world. 

"When you let children explore their environment safely and freely, they find their limit. And of course, we are there for them when they ask for help, but the experience is giving them the space to explore their choices, their fear, their boundaries, themselves and others. This is all-important in these early years," she said. 

SSU Associate Professor of Early Childhood Studies Dr. Elita Amini Virmani knows firsthand how the School's environment and curriculum work for children because her daughter attended the center while she taught in her early years at the university. 

"I fell in love with their focus on children being outdoors and that it was a place that fostered a sense of curiosity and love for the environment. Their gardens are edible, designed to encourage children's love of nature and exploration, which are important values for us as a family," Amini Virmani said.

As someone who has taught in early childhood programs, Amini Virmani said she deeply respects how children problem-solve without adults interfering. She added that the School's commitment to this process was remarkable and one that fosters children’s sense of competence and knowing.

"Children know how to solve problems, and we need to stand back and give them space to do that. I think many of us overlook that children need to have consistent experiences of practicing problem-solving and negotiating complex situations with their peers," she said. 

Wanting to reciprocate what nurtured her family, Amini Virmani presented a March workshop for the School's parents on young children's temperament from a parent/professional perspective, a topic that Amini Virmani has presented nationally and internationally. 

The workshop was titled Viewing Your Child’s Temperament as a Window for Deepening Your Connection with Them, and it was open to SSU's children's school parent community, teachers, students, faculty, and staff.

"They have given so much; I wanted to give back meaningfully," she said. 

Although sheltered in the back of the 269-acre university and sometimes unnoticed, Wentz said the Children’s School can be an example of how any class can be taught, pre-K through college.

“It is a prime example of environmental education working and thriving. I feel like a lot of people need to look into what we're doing here and use it with their students, or in their classrooms. It can be applied to any learning environment,” she said.

Nelson understandably wants the School to continue in perpetuity and said that even though the Center has survived since the mid-70s, it may not without additional funding. She added that if anyone is drawn to donate, they can do so with SSU’s private fund for the center. 

"I think the Children's School is something for SSU to be proud of," she said. 

 - Krista Sherer, Strategic Communications Writer 


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Krista Sherer