By Abigail Lawton-Scrivener, UM News Service
Missoula – Children enrolled in the Learning and Belonging nursery at the University of Montana spend four days a week playing, exploring and growing in vibrant classrooms equipped with everything a young child could want – even a pet snake in the classroom. The only thing the nursery lacks is an outdoor playroom. In this class, children ages 3, 4, and 5 are responsible for solving this problem.
Preschoolers spent months answering a question about what their new playground needed and dreaming up big potential. Some ideas are noble, like building a skyscraper that reaches into the clouds or building an all-you-can-eat ice cream machine. Teachers distill these daydreams into feasible ideas and present options for children to choose from.
While the plan is ultimately to reveal a playground that is as influenced by children’s desires as possible, the larger goal is to engage preschoolers in developmentally appropriate learning, all through the act of play.
“When they play, they choose what they are most interested in,” says Christine Dahl-Hurjsy, principal of Pre-Lab. “We know that they learn best when they are interested.”
Exercise is a symbol of the philosophy at the core of early childhood education programs at UM. Using a project-based learning approach and following the ideology that play is learning, emerging early childhood educators encourage young children to actively direct their schooling.
Classrooms like these are an invaluable resource in a state like Montana–one of only a handful in the country without a publicly funded preschool. While community programs supporting young children or private preschools exist across the state, early childhood educators say a lack of organization and funding creates disparities. It also creates obstacles for families who cannot afford to send their children to school before kindergarten.
This can leave some children less ready than others to enter school, says Allison Wilson, assistant professor in the department of early childhood education and director of the Early Childhood Education Institute at MM.
In the absence of a publicly funded incubator, Wilson’s vision is that the UM program and students who graduate from it with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree can design best-practice early childhood education for programs across the state of Montana.
Open to all Missoula-area children, LAB Preschool is an educational space for both preschool-aged children and college-level students pursuing an educational degree at UM. Early Childhood Education Preschool students pursue children’s natural curiosity and, with added support and structure, learn to turn their curiosity into a project that captures children’s interest and engages them in dynamic learning opportunities.
After Valentine’s Day, a student becomes curious about sending letters, prompting the teachers to create a child-sized post office with mailboxes, envelopes, and stamps. Kids wrote each other letters, charged each other for stamps with play money and classified mail. Children develop their motor skills, literacy and math skills while playing and learning about the world.
“When young children are given the space to be active and interact with their environment, they develop in confidence,” says Dal Horreji. “They also view school as a fun and meaningful experience, and they are ready to go to elementary school with the social skills they acquired here. When they have those chops, they will be much more prepared.”
UM students benefit from LAB nursery practical experience and a curriculum specifically designed for the developmentally appropriate education of the youngest learners, preparing graduates to become experts in their field. UM Early Childhood Education graduates tailor themselves to the specific needs of young children—something that enhances teacher retention and improves the learning experience for young children in the classrooms where UM graduates teach, Wilson says.
“Students leave with a sustained exercise of intentional thinking and the flexibility to respond to what they know children need in their classroom,” says Wilson. “It’s personality and habits of mind.”
Early Childhood Education master’s student Olivia Kersey-Brunick puts that philosophy to work as one of the first two UM graduate students to be selected as a Boric Scholar.
Founded by businessman Luis Boric, the foundation supports education, youth development, leadership, the arts, and animal welfare. The Borick Foundation recently awarded the University of Montana Foundation a grant to purchase the new playhouse at LAB Preschool and fund the graduate student’s early childhood research, studies, and experiences in the classroom. The scholarship funds Kersey-Bronec’s time as an Associate Instructor at LAB Preschool this semester.
“If it weren’t for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do this situation, I would have made money in other ways,” Kersey-Bronec says of being a Borick scholar. “Having to support myself financially and work in this field in order to become a better teacher every day, I am really grateful for that.”
Previously a chemistry major at the University of Puget Sound, Kersey-Bronec entered the UM program after spending two years with AmeriCorps working as a kindergarten teaching assistant and teaching sustainable agriculture in Montana. She says having access to LAB Preschool is instrumental in furthering her dream career.
“These classrooms are beautiful environments for kids, where math and literacy are interwoven into everything kids do,” says Kersey-Bronec. “As a student, I feel like I learned a lot from having access to these spaces.”
Early Childhood classes at UM and first-hand experience at LAB Preschool prepare Kersey-Bronec to head her class past her expected graduation date in Spring 2024. As a teacher, she plans to continue the ideology in which he learns to play.
“I think it’s so much fun to be a kid, expressing your interests and seeing them as valuable in the classroom,” says Kersey-Bronec. “The students don’t remember what you say, they remember how you made them feel. My goal is to be the teacher who leaves a positive memory, as well as prepare children for success in their lives and in school.”
Preparing young children for a life of successful education is also the goal of Early Childhood Education PhD student and Associate Professor Anna Purrier.
He is also a Boric Scholar and Associate Educator at Lab Preschool, who already has 22 years of experience working in early childhood and elementary education, as well as a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Texas Arlington.
Puryear decided to pursue another degree at UM to dig into the gap she envisioned between the education of early childhood learners and elementary school children. As young students move beyond kindergarten, Purrier says, play and social development are often stifled. She plans to focus her thesis on this gap.
“There’s a real disconnect between what we know about how children develop in early childhood and what happens in elementary school,” says Purrier. “People forget how babies are developing back then. They learn by moving and they learn by playing.”
By providing an income and paying for her tuition, Purrier says, becoming a Purik Scholar allows her to delve deeper into her research first in a way she couldn’t otherwise. The support secures her regular time at the LAB Preschool as an assistant teacher and allows her time to collaborate with other early childhood professionals.
Purrier hopes her research will support public schools in closing the gap and emphasizing the importance of placing early childhood educators who focus on learning through play in kindergarten through third grade classrooms.
“Play is when you can practice what you learn without any threat,” says Purrier. “They’re learning how to be people in a place where it’s very safe to be themselves.”
Perrier expects to graduate in the spring of 2026. After that, she hopes to work with Wilson to expand UM’s early childhood education efforts.
At its inception, the institute launches a program The inaugural summit in April in collaboration with local early childhood organizations Zero to Five Missoula County and the Missoula Chapter of the Montana Association for the Education of Young Children.
The summit will seek to further the institute’s larger mission of bringing together early childhood stakeholders to work together across disciplines and address the needs of young children and families in Montana. The goal, Wilson says, is to bring together a diverse group of experts to respond to those needs through research, workshops, and new partnerships.
The Summit will be held April 6-8 at the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education during National Association for the Education of Young Children Week.
Contacts: Allison Wilson, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Michigan and Director of the Early Childhood Education Institute, 406-243-4865, [email protected]; Kristin D. Horejsi, Preschool Director of Learning and Belonging, 406-243-4262, [email protected].