Carnegie Mellon's Children's School Celebrates 40 Years of
Child Development Research and Early Childhood Education
PITTSBURGH—For four decades, play dough, blocks and make believe have been the tools of discovery at the Children's School at Carnegie Mellon University.
Since its founding in 1968, Carnegie Mellon's laboratory school has emphasized hands-on learning. Long hothouses for imagination, schools like this are places where children are encouraged to explore their world and expand their skills, while child development experts gain new insights about learning and behavior.
This month, the Children's School celebrates its 40th anniversary of developmental research and early childhood education. At Carnegie Mellon, children between the ages of 3 and 5 receive progressive instruction; but most days, exploration goes beyond the theme of the month as they work with young psychologists in exercises that challenge their thinking while, at the same time, giving scientists a glimpse into their minds.
Founding Director Ann Baldwin Taylor led the school for 25 years before Sharon Carver, a psychology professor, took the helm. Carver has spent the past 15 years as director, but her connection to the Children's School began when she conducted research in the laboratory school as a Carnegie Mellon doctoral student.
"Laboratory school environments are uniquely designed to foster learning for children, their teachers and their families, while at the same time facilitating research and training the next generation of researchers, teachers and parents," Carver said.
When parents enroll students in the Children's School, they provide full permission for their sons and daughters to participate in research studies that are approved by Carver and the Institutional Review Board. Research is carefully integrated into the ebb and flow of the day so that children learn and thrive in the environment as breakthroughs occur for scientists.
The existence of the school — a part of the Psychology Department since 1971 — has allowed the university to sustain a world-class level of child development research. A number of research advances have occurred over the decades. For example, psychologists have detailed the sophisticated constraints that children use to simplify the task of learning language, the generally useful problem-solving strategies that they adapt to make novel challenges more manageable, and the significant impact of adult questioning techniques on children's memory for events.
Children's School studies often serve as pilot projects for larger-scale research focused on mechanisms of child development. These investigations go beyond determining what age children should acquire particular skills to focus on how children learn. By studying these processes, researchers enable parents and teachers to appropriately intervene when a child needs to overcome a learning challenge. For example, Robert Siegler, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology, and graduate student Yan Mu are studying how different methods of finger counting improve children's understanding of the place value system (ones, tens, etc.).
Carnegie Mellon's ability to create and embrace new technology has enhanced student experiences and strengthened research. The Children's School was one of the first schools in the country to expose pre-school and kindergarten children to computer applications and programming, and its researchers were pioneers in using video and computer recordings to collect detailed records of children's mental processes. Other academic areas as diverse as design, art-in-context, engineering, photography, robotics and second-language acquisition take advantage of the laboratory environment.
Researchers' findings and educators' classroom experimentation together shape the school's innovations in early childhood education. Topics of particular emphasis in recent years include advances in thematic curriculum with extended projects, age-appropriate lessons in cooking and physical education, and individualizing instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners. Both researchers and classroom teachers regularly present at national psychology and education conferences, and the school hosts workshops for local teachers.
In many ways, children are no different in 2008 than they were in 1968. From ages 3 to 5, they are gaining social, physical, language and cognitive skills to participate effectively in society. And that's where the timeless tools of play dough, blocks and make believe impact development.
Photo courtesy of Sharon Carver, director of the Children's School.