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Davis, California

Thursday, July 18, 2024

UC Davis’ Early Childhood Lab school proves valuable to all ages

The preschool possesses research opportunities in child development, while also using unique methods to promote learning

By providing local children a unique and active learning environment, as well as students the chance to get hands-on experience in a classroom setting, the UC Davis Early Childhood Lab (ECL) school serves the Davis community in more ways than one.

“The lab school serves for several purposes,” said Gina O’Neill, second-year human development Ph.D student and graduate student researcher at ECL. “Not only does it provide a fantastic developmental center for young children – particularly for those people who are affiliated with Davis – but it also helps the undergraduate population.”

ECL, which is run through the university’s Center for Child and Family Studies (CCFS), is a half-day educational program for young children, and also doubles as a site for undergraduate and graduate students to acquire experience in child development research.

“About 50 to 80 percent of the research is basic developmental research – cognitive development, social development, those kinds of things,” said CCFS Assistant Specialist in Cooperative Extension Lenna Ontai. “The majority of the research that takes place in the classroom is merely observational, just watching kids within the classroom or taking the kids aside and doing a task with them in the room. The other percentage of the research is looking at caregiving practices –  looking at how caregivers interact with children, and how the temperament of the kids influence how the caregiver responds.”

Of the 82 children that attend ECL, 60 of them are preschoolers, with the remaining children being toddlers and infants. Each class consists of the lead teacher, a child development specialist and four to five undergraduate student caregivers who have a background in human development studies.

“I research cognitive development in preschoolers and basically just look at how they gesture when they’re problem solving,” O’Neill said. “I go in [an ECL classroom] and test children for about half an hour at a time, and play games with them and just kind of attend to what they do with their hands when they’re problem solving.”

Many UC Davis professors and staff have children who are currently or have been enrolled in the ECL school, which is located right off the university campus on First Street.

“In my son’s class, I would say half the [children are professors’ kids] and then the other half are graduate students’ and postdoctorals’’,” Ontai said. “Community members [attend the school] as well. [CCFS] try to take a number of factors into account [for enrollment], but one of the things they really do try to take into account is to be there for graduate students and postdocs.”

UC Davis mathematics professor Joseph Biello has one alumna lab school child and one child currently enrolled.

“It’s been great – I have a lot of great things to say about ECL,” Biello said. “It was wonderful to not only watch your own student blossom in this environment but also watch these undergraduates – some of them will stay a whole year or more – really come into their own and be these great, wonderful teachers. As a professor, I really love that too because the whole thing is not only about teaching the kids, it’s about teaching the students as well.”

ECL’s teaching philosophy has to do with active learning through play, designed to focus on the children’s social and emotional development through various unparalleled teaching strategies and programs that are unique to the school.

“[ECL] implements a strategy for conflict resolution,” Biello said. “Last fall on the school ground in second grade, my daughter and her friends encountered a conflict with somebody else. They had this problem, and they went through the conflict resolution script by themselves, unprompted by adults and they figured it out best they could. These are seven-year old children – and it was really amazing. It was really a moment where I [thought] ‘I’m so happy we went to ECL!’”

Amongst the various reasons for ECL to be a preferred over other local Davis preschools is the adult to child ratio, which is much lower than other schools and thus ensures each child gets individual and specialized attention from the faculty.

“In the infant room you only have two infants for every one student, and when they get to toddlers there’s three to one and then preschool it’s four to one,” Ontai said. “If I were to send [my kids] out to an infant program in the community, the infant ratios for accreditation are [much higher]. That was one of the main motivators for me, just to be able to have my kids have a really close interaction and relationship with their caregivers.”

Another one-of-a-kind method that ECL utilizes is called “reflective sports casting,” which is the practice of caregiving that is more similar to observing behaviors rather than directing behaviors or constantly telling children what they can and cannot do.

“I feel like [my kids] were able to develop a sense of how to interact with people and certain kinds of expectations for what those interactions would bring them,” Ontai said. “I think they just expect that they’re going to be listened to and appreciated versus feeling like they have to scream and act out to get attention.”

On top of maintaining many research and study options in the realm of child development for students in the Davis community, ECL hopes to continue to create a comfortable and positive environment for the children and parents of Davis.

“I can’t say enough about their center, they just do a fantastic job at what they’re doing,” O’Neill said. “They’re always very happy and pleasant, and everything is very under control. The kids are happy and everybody’s happy there.”

Photo Courtesy Center for Child and Family Studies.


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