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Learning Through Play

by Hilary Bentman

The badge around Meiya’s neck reads “security guard,” and she is taking her job very seriously.

Patrolling the library grounds, Meiya ensures nothing is amiss. She stops to ask Julianne Lowenstein ’17 if she’s okay. Lowenstein replies in the affirmative, and Meiya moves on.

Not far away, Andrew is diligently scanning books at the checkout counter, while his tablemate is searching for information on a computer.

This could be a scene at any library, except that the book scanner and computer are made of cardboard, and Meiya, the security guard, is just 5 years old.

This library is actually playing out in the middle of a classroom at the Albright Early Learning Center. To the casual observer, it looks like playtime at preschool. But on closer inspection, one will find children engaging in pre-reading and pre-writing, even if the kids don’t realize it.

“Play is very important and understandable. Young children learn through play,” says Albright associate professor of education Sue Seidenstricker, Ed.D. “This is not just gatekeeping, but an intentional learning environment.”

The library scenario is what’s known as a literacy play center. This particular one was devised by Lowenstein as part of Seidenstricker’s “Early Literacy Foundations” course for education majors, which focuses on the language and literacy development of children from birth through preschool.

As part of the class, Seidenstricker asks her students to develop three activities to support children’s literacy development. In addition to the literacy play center, students also develop an interactive read-aloud with phonological awareness activity (for example, segmenting and blending sounds and rhyming that indicates a  child has developed awareness and can manipulate sounds) and teacher-guided activities such as fingerplay (hand motions that are coordinated with words or songs to support language development; think “Itsy Bitsy Spider”).

Through such activities, the Albright students can assess a child’s oral language and emerging writing abilities, their awareness of how print works, how they handle books, and how they interact with others.

 “Their writing looks like scribbles, but they’re hitting their development achievements,” says Alesha Molitor ’17, an early education major in the course. “I love seeing them grow, from singing a song to writing about it.”

Molitor, Lowenstein and the other Albright students are assigned to a mentor teacher at the AELC, visit his or her classroom weekly, and implement these literacy activities in a place where the curriculum and philosophy are perfectly aligned with what they’ve been studying. “All the things we’re teaching is a perfect match with the AELC,” says Seidenstricker.

That’s by design. The AELC was developed as a laboratory school for Albright education majors. Founded in 1974, and originally housed on campus, the AE LC has been helping generations of aspiring teachers gain invaluable field experience.

In 2000, the AE LC moved to its current location on Kutztown Road, and continues to offer Albright students hands-on training, while also providing a quality education for the children of Albright employees and Berks County residents. The center offers infant and toddler educational programming and care, and preschool, kindergarten and summer programs.

 At the AE LC, the philosophy is learn-through-play.

“We believe a play-based center is the best way to create lifelong learners,” says AELC director Laura Heckart ’12M. “We’re allowing the children to explore and learn, and we sneak the education in.”

Thanks to the relationship between the AE LC and the College, education majors can get into a classroom as early as their freshman year. Although students will observe and student-teach in other school settings – both public and private, and across grade levels – without this partnership it would be far more difficult to provide Albright students with such a rich experience, says Seidenstricker.

“Without this partnership we don’t have access to mentor teachers,” she says.

In fact, Molitor said, one of the reasons she decided to attend Albright was knowing she would get into a classroom her first year.

The AE LC’s collaboration with the College is not limited to the education department. Students and faculty from across academic disciplines, including psychology and theatre, have conducted research and other activities at the center.

Heckart urges more Albrightians to take advantage of the opportunity. “We’re asking professors to think outside the box. There’s no limit.”

Lowenstein, who designed the library literacy play center, has jumped at that invitation. The early childhood education/French major is teaching French to 3- to 6-year-olds at the AELC after school. The enrichment program is part of Lowenstein’s senior thesis on why foreign language should be introduced at an early age, and different ways to teach it. Much like the literacy class, Lowenstein’s approach is project-based and full of songs and playful activities.

“I’m not expecting the children to speak French fluently but to pick up a few words, to understand that there are other languages out there other than English and Spanish,” says Lowenstein.

Working at the AELC has influenced Molitor’s career trajectory. Initially she saw herself teaching second or third grade. But after spending time at the center, she has developed the confidence to teach and manage a classroom of younger children. Today, she is gravitating toward preschool or kindergarten.

“I learn from the (AELC children) every single day,” says Molitor. “They teach me more about how to live my life. They don’t see differences in people. I think a lot of people can learn from pre-schoolers.”

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