Tolerance, Acceptance, Diversity
Lisa Williams, who heads up Westminster Canterbury’s Child Development Center, has 24 years of experience in the field, and it shows. She loves children and understands how important it is to teach them at the earliest age the most essential things that make us human—tolerance, acceptance and diversity. She cradles an infant to her chest when we enter one of the rooms for children up to ten months old; the child could be her own.
Westminster Canterbury’s Child Development Center is bright and spacious, containing a large library, a multi-purpose room, a galley and ten commodious classrooms. The classrooms empty on to an inner courtyard which houses separate playgrounds that are age appropriate. The kids—from infants to sixth graders—are happy and well-taken care of, stimulated to the nines. My children, Catherine and Charles, spent many of their formative years here. Catherine attended the after-school program until she was twelve and even got a chance to assist some of her teachers. For both of them it was like a second home. My daughter met one her closest friends here and they are tight as ticks as they prepare for college. What I’d always been impressed by was the student/teacher ratio and some of the teachers who have been there for years.
Many of them are still here—Miss Ruthie and Mister Joey, Miss Renee and Miss Mary, Miss Latanya and Miss Paulette. Some of these people have worked at this child development center for almost 30 years and they’re just as engaged with their charges now as they were decades ago.
Lisa guides me through the halls and into the different classrooms. In one of the first classrooms we enter there are babies sleeping or being fed from bottles by their attentive caregivers. “We have two classes devoted to infants because there has been such a demand from the community,” says Lisa. “These children are form between six weeks and ten months old. With them we work on developing the skills in their trunk and helping them develop gross motor skills to become mobile.” Moms are welcome to breastfeed their kids during the day in a separate room.
By the time the kids start walking, they are moved into another room which will take them up to about sixteen months. “When they’ve developed from what I call creepers and crawlers to walkers they enter this class,” Lisa says. “Here we start focusing on gross motor and early language skills and fine motor skills. And because this is an enriched environment they grow socially and emotionally. We do it all through play in the classroom. At that point they’re learning what it means to be part of a group.”
When they leave this room the children enter the toddler room. By then they’re fairly decent walkers and they begin absorbing routines like eating and napping and they tend to separate easily from their parents. “It’s here that we help the children to develop social and emotional skills, the foundation of what they need to go to kindergarten,” says Lisa.
In the next level comes potty training and the kids learn to stand in a straight line one behind the other (more or less). They talk about the weather and days of the week and holidays and what they did over the weekend. It’s also during this period that the children are learning imagination skills and the fine motor skills that will enable them to write.
By the following year the children actually begin writing, squiggles and cross-hatching at first, that gradually evolve into actual letters. Every item in this room is labeled for the sake of sight recognition. But this is not about academics and actual reading. “It’s about teaching them the joy of succeeding and learning to fail at time,” Lisa tells me. “Their self-help skills increase with this knowledge.”
In the classroom of four to five year olds there is a little more structure and writing is encouraged, but there’s so much more to it than that. “They are learning to make choices,” says Lisa. “They learn that some choices are good ones and what choices are not so good ones.”
As we move back into Lisa office she says: “Children are born learners, they’re born to learn. You have to enrich it, but you can’t force it.” That’s what they do here. From the earliest age these children are exposed to people with infinite patience who allow them to sponge up knowledge at their own pace.
Part of the success of the programs at Westminster Canterbury has to do with an underlining principal that should probably be the cornerstone of every institution of learning. “In a nut shell our philosophy is to provide a quality early childhood and school age experience to help our children succeed in school and life and we do that by having an environment that is accepting and loving and tolerant and inclusive of all children,” says Lisa. She points out that the children there come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds and that many of them are bilingual.
As we move out into the hall and over toward the galley, Lisa says that of all the child care development centers she’s worked Westminster Canterbury’s hands down is the best. Aside from the dedicated staff here there’s also the facility itself. “Our building is cleaned twice a day and the security is great,” she says. “When they designed this space it was made to be a child development center. They paid attention to all the little details.”
In the galley there are small clear plastic containers—one with leaves, one with cheese, one with apple halves. Caterpillars had been placed in each one of them a while ago and recently butterflies have begun emerging from their cocoons. And, of course, the kids are listening to that children’s classic, “The Hungry Caterpillar”.
“This is really learning,” says Lisa as she picks up a pair of cloth butterfly wings that she fits on her hands like oven mitts and then makes them flap and tells me, that among other things, she is a puppeteer.
We return to the classrooms and we see Miss Ruthie and Mr. Joey, both veteran teachers here and favorites among kids and parents alike. When I tell Joey that my daughter Catherine is a junior in high school now, he says: “Oh Ruthie’s so old.” There’s general laughter and he adds, “So am I.”
When hiring new staff, Lisa is very thorough in screening. It’s not good enough for a prospective childcare provider to say she loves children. “I look for credentials and experience,” Lisa says. “Because child care is not an easy job. It requires very specific education.”
And there’s something more than that. “Interaction is the key though, a teacher must come down to the child’s level,” says Lisa. “I’m not interested in an authoritarian, but in an authoritative teacher who is respected and loved and loves each of the children for where they are and who they are.”
Back at her office she hands me a brochure on the center and we sit for a few minutes, just chatting. “Children are precious,” Lisa Williams says. “You don’t punish a three year old for acting like a three year old. The word discipline comes from the word disciple which means to teach. You can teach a child to make good choices through a positive discipline approach and that is logical consequences