Two T.E.A.C.H. scholars create a special space for toddlers – indoors and out

Don’t be surprised if the toddlers entering their classroom at the Tri-County Community Action Agency in Pascoag have their mouths full of cherry tomatoes. They picked those tomatoes from large planters outside the front door.

Those are their tomatoes. They planted them in the spring and watered them through the summer. They also tend a much larger garden next to their playground.

“It’s all part of our outdoor classroom,” explains Diane Gallant, one of the two teachers in this classroom. The eight children range in age from 18 months to 3 years. “In good weather we spend most of the day outside so we’ve set up activity centers in the same way we do inside. We have a writing area, a manipulative area, and a reading center in a small cabana we’ve constructed. Inside we’ll do a cooking activity with the vegetables the children have grown and picked.”

Diane, a former T.E.A.C.H. scholar, received her associate’s degree from the Community College of Rhode Island last year. Her co-teacher, Kim Larson, is a current scholar who will earn the same degree this month.

“I probably wouldn’t have earned that degree if I hadn’t been motivated by T.E.A.C.H.,” Diane concedes. Kim agrees. “I married early and had no college at all,” she says. “Head Start encouraged me to pursue my GED and then to go to college. T.E.A.C.H. made college possible.”

On a recent visit to their inviting classroom, the weather had turned cold, the tomato season had ended, and the children needed jackets, mittens and hats to play outdoors. When they returned to their warm room, even the youngest hung her own jacket and moved to the next activity.

“What I love about this classroom is that the transitions are seamless,” says Maura Pearce, director of T.E.A.C.H. RI. “Children move calmly from one activity to another with purpose and delight.”

Diane and Kim say the secret to their success is that they are always on the same page. “We share the same philosophy,” Kim notes. “We treat each child as we would want our own children treated.”

Diane says she enjoys talking with Kim about the college classes she’s taking because many of them are the same that she took just a year or two ago. “We’re respectful of ideas and we’re always eager to try something different,” notes Kim. “And we’re reflective. After the children leave we reflect on the day.”

“Sometimes we’ll say, ‘well, that didn’t go so well,’” adds Diane. “And then we’ll talk about what we could have done differently.”

Their Early Head Start supervisor, Stacy Bernardi, says she has always encouraged providers to pursue higher education because she believes it increases the quality of the classroom. “To provide high-quality care that will lead to school readiness and success in life it’s imperative that providers are well informed about age-appropriate development along with ‘responsive care giving,'” she says.

Parent engagement is also a big part of their philosophy. Diane and Kim first met at this Head Start program when they themselves were parents of young children. They believe that history helps them relate to the parents of their students without appearing judgmental. “We work hard to build their trust and we encourage them to be part of their children’s education,” Diane says. “We like to show them how much their children are capable of doing.”

“Parents are often surprised when they come here and see how much their children can do by themselves,” Kim adds. “Simple things like hanging up a coat or putting away the toys. It’s great when I see parents carry what we’re doing in the classroom into the home.”

Kim, who has spent 19 years in early childhood education, was in a preschool classroom until four years ago. “I was ready for a new challenge,” she says when asked why she moved into a toddler setting. “I just love this age group now.”

“There’s so much growth at this age,” notes Diane. “It’s remarkable to watch what happens between the time they first enter our room and when they move on to the next level. There couldn’t be anything more rewarding.”


Photos from top to bottom: Diane (left) and Kim in their outdoor classroom; some of the bounty from the gardens that the children tend; Diane; Kim; Diane (left) and Kim in the cabana they constructed as part of their outdoor classroom; one section of their inviting classroom.

T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® Rhode Island is a project of Ready to Learn Providence and a licensed program of Child Care Services Association in North Carolina. It is currently funded through the RI Department of Human Services.

At the end of this year, T.E.A.C.H. RI will operate under new leadership at the RI Association for the Education of Young Children. When Ready to Learn became a program of Roger Williams University last February it understood that it could no longer house T.E.A.C.H. because the national organization precludes institutions of higher education from administering it.

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