Carnegie Mellon University

Image of Chidren's School Director Sharon Carver and a child

January 24, 2018

Pittsburgh Preschool Advances Research

CMU's Children's school celebrates 50 years

By Ann Lyon Ritchie

Shilo Rea
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science
  • 412-269-6094

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 at Carnegie Mellon University, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has always been a place where children play and learn.

In 1968, Founding Director Ann Baldwin Taylor received a grant from the Esso Foundation, and with administrative support from 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 undergraduates 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, a 1986 graduate of the Dietrich College, 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, Carver said. 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, the Children's School is racially and economically diverse, with only 15 percent of the children 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 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," Siegler said. "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," he added. "Another advantage is that Dr. Carver often provides useful suggestions for research projects conducted at the school."

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," Carver said. "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."

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.