Photography by Dani Rose Thibus
Across the Southeast, early childhood educators are visiting UT’s Early Learning Center (ELC) to learn about designing early learning experiences for young children.
A part of the Department of Child and Family Studies, the ELC provides early childhood education for children ages six weeks through kindergarten as well as academic support for more than 100 college students enrolled annually in child and family studies coursework.
The center has become a regional hub for educators and students from across Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and neighboring states who want to take part in the year-round Study Tours program, a full schedule of in-classroom observations and other programming.
“It’s a great opportunity for educators from other schools to observe our program and to dialogue with one another,” said Dani Thibus, study tour coordinator.
In 2019, early learning programs from the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia visited the ELC, observing teachers and participating in sessions with other staff.
“I was impressed by the level of commitment and passion of the teachers,” said Michelle Darabaris, director of the University of Alabama Children’s Program. “Each was eager to share knowledge of emergent curriculum and best practices for young children.”
Particularly impressive for visitors are some of the elements that make the ELC unique, such as its focus on nature-based learning. The center has natural playgrounds, which were transformed from more typical commercial playgrounds. Research, including a 2014 study published by researchers in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies, has supported the idea that children benefit from more time outdoors.
“Many educators come to us for inspiration on playground design, expectations regarding time and budgets, and education on how the natural playground has impacted our work with children and teachers,” Thibus said.
Visitors are also curious about the ELC’s preservice training for teachers. “As a lab school, a major part of our mission is to teach teachers,” Thibus said.
The ELC prepares undergraduate and graduate child development and early childhood education professionals by providing valuable in-classroom experience as well as research opportunities in collaboration with the CFS department.
The ELC’s setting—consisting of two sites for toddler, preschool, and infant programs—and experience lend themselves to working with other regional lab schools, including those at Alabama, Georgia, and East Tennessee State University.
“The collaborative spirit, total focus of the teachers on the children, and the teachers’ intentionality are inspiring,” said Tricia Amberg, an older toddler lead teacher from Georgia.
Outside of the Study Tours program, the center supports educators from the broader community of early childhood education with its annual summer institute, which will be held in June in Knoxville.