Patrick Trautfield

Tucked away in the southwest corner of campus lies the Orfalea Family and Associated Students Inc. Children’s Center. On this particular Friday, like any other day at the center, the joyful sounds of laughter can be heard as the children play with the center’s virtually unlimited amount of supplies.

At the blocks play station in room four, for instance, Haley is carefully constructing an intricate tractor for Bob the Builder out of magnetic, primary-colored blocks. Quite the multitasker, the blond, curly haired two-year-old passionately construes a spur-of-the-moment tale to accompany her building project.

Nearby, head teacher Emily Vanderzwaag sings “Red Little Caboose” with some of the kids: “Red little caboose, chug chug chug/Red little caboose, behind the train.” Others on the mat where she is sitting are making a little red caboose of their own.

To an amateur, this looks like play. But, really, this is just calculated fun – the method by which children learn, director of children’s programs Tonya Iverson said.

“The teachers are observing the children and they know the kind of developmental stages that are important for the children to go through,” Iversen said. “So, like I said, to the untrained observer, it looks like play. But there is a definite purpose to everything they are doing.”

The Children’s Center – open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. – provides child care for 4-month-old to 6-year-old children of Cal Poly students, faculty and staff, and alumni parents. Started more than 30 years ago as a grassroots effort, the center now cares for 130 or so children within its seven classrooms.

Their philosophy is focused on the social and emotional development of the young children in their care. In this way, the center acts as a precursor to the children’s upcoming elementary-school days.

“We believe that once (the children) develop their own social skills, all the academic sorts of things are going to fall into place naturally after that. Until you learn how to problem solve, negotiate a conflict with your peers, and get your own personal needs met, you won’t be able to focus in on how to do math,” Iversen said.

“We are focusing in on how to do that, negotiating for space or negotiating for a toy that some other child has. We are helping them to develop the skills to say, ‘I don’t like it when you hit me,’ rather than hitting them back. We are really focusing on helping them to develop a sense of self and self-competence.”

Confidence and competence, especially social competence, are a key part of this so that these kids don’t struggle later in life, she added.

With this in mind, the center seeks to nurture and encourage children as they develop individually, within a group setting.

One of the ways this is accomplished is by instilling children with the desire to learn, which is mainly based on their own sense of curiosity.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, while on a trek around campus, the children from room seven came across owl pellets. Their curiosity piqued, the children began looking for the owl. Finally, three weeks after the initial pellet-spotting, the owl was found.

Since then, the children have launched into an in-depth study of owls. They have collected, sanitized and dissected some of the owl pellets; have read books and even done research online (with the assistance of Cal Poly student helpers); and several art projects featuring the elusive bird now line the hallway. All of this based on one single observation.

“They’re learning this huge depth of knowledge based on something they just saw on their trek. And that’s really our goal, to take that little bit of interest they have and expand it as much as we possibly can,” Iversen said. The center is also planning more hands-on projects.

“For our next job, we are going to find pictures of skeletons with the bones labeled in order, and have them try to match them up or even try to piece a mouse back together almost. And the final project will be pressing them into clay to make fossils and then sending them home,” room seven teacher Erin Moschetti said.

Similarly, teachers are discouraged from modeling things for the students; the goal instead is for them to encourage the children to keep trying on their own instead. Again, this helps them to develop a sense of self-competence in the process.

But this can also develop in an almost humorous way, said Kimmy Walker, a liberal studies junior and student helper in room five.

“Pretty much they just say really funny things, that’s my favorite part about working here. Like this morning, a parent brought in a couple of baby chicks for the kids to look at and play with. Some of the kids said, ‘Well, we could get a book and put it in their cage and it will help them grow. And then they can turn the pages with the beaks.’”

And it is just that sort of curiosity – and individuality – that the center is seeking to cultivate.

Check out Tuesday’s newspaper to read more about the Children’s Center and how parents get involved.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *