Carnegie Mellon University

Dr. Sharon Carver

January 22, 2018

A Pittsburgh Preschool Advances Research

The Children's School Celebrates 50 Years

By Ann Lyon Ritchie
Media Inquiries: Shilo Rea

Always a place to play and learn, a small early childhood program once operated where Carnegie Mellon University’s intramural soccer fields now lie.

Then in 1968, Founding Director Ann Baldwin Taylor received a grant from the Esso Foundation. With the administrative support of psychology professor John Sandberg, she established a new laboratory school for young children in the vision of education reformer John Dewey. It became The Children's School.

Instructors taught child development and nutrition to undergrads in the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College. The Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences placed the school into the Department of Psychology in 1973.

Sharon Carver (DC, '86) carried the torch when Taylor retired in 1993 and celebrates her silver anniversary as director this year.

"I was looking for a way to better integrate psychology and education," Carver said. 

The school has thrived under only two directors. The 96-student laboratory school facilitates observations and research in a range of disciplines, from early childhood development and educational practices to child-friendly furniture design and more. 

The children benefit, too. The Children's School set up one of the earliest computer labs with Macintoshes in the early 1980s. In exchange for the lab, Taylor negotiated with the university to provide computer literacy training to the administrative staff.

Today, nothing about the school looks fifty years old. Three-, four-, and five-year-olds interact with science kits on knee-high tabletops. A smartboard displays a lesson on "Animals in the Wild," and iPads send children's photos and messages to parents during the school day. 

As one of the most sought after preschool programs in Pittsburgh, the Children's School is racially and economically diverse, with only 15 percent from CMU-affiliated households. Some have special needs. One-third of the children attend on a partial or full scholarship.

"Where we have zero diversity is every single one of the parents believes in early childhood education as a priority," Carver said.

The Children's School designs its own curriculum and equips parents to talk at home about lessons. An annual Family Festival in February and the kindergarten graduation in May celebrate the children's learning.

"The needs of the children have not changed all that much over the years, but each year the Children's School makes a greater impact on CMU and the broader community of early childhood development, research and education," Carver said.

Robert Siegler, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology, studies the development of math skills and has demonstrated a variety of positive effects of playing numerical board games with young children.

"Having the Children’s School on campus is an invaluable resource to me for several reasons. One is that it provides a population of preschoolers with whom to conduct research. Sometimes, the children participate in formal research studies; other times, they participate in pilot studies that allow me to work out the bugs in initial procedures and improve them. The children are happy and have a positive attitude toward participating. Another advantage is that Dr. Carver often provides useful suggestions for research projects conducted at the school," Siegler said.

Three psychology courses led by Carver incorporate Children's School observations and research opportunities. Outside departments partner with the school as well.

Computer science students have conducted usability studies to improve children's products. Projects with the School of Design have led to real-world products created for Crayola and Radio Flyer, among other corporate partners.

"College students do not ordinarily gain much exposure to young children. For CMU students who want a career working with children, whether it is designing computer programs for children, becoming a pediatrician, or designing architectural spaces or products for children, the Children's School is an outstanding resource that provides rich educational experiences," Carver said.

In 2010, the reach of the school stretched internationally through a partnership and exchange program with Duksung Women's University in Seoul, South Korea. Regionally, the Children's School participates in a consortium of laboratory schools in Oakland. It will co-host the International Association of Laboratory Schools Conference (IALS) in May.

After fifty years, the Children's School still offers a best-in-practice early childhood education program and proves that an excitement for learning knows no bounds of age. 

Pictured Above: Sharon Carver (left) watches as Children’s School kindergarten student Emery Zhang builds a base of spaghetti that would support a platform to hold at least 10 Legos. The activity tied lessons about food with their study of Pittsburgh.