Published February 13, 2014
If the goal is to raise healthy, active children, comfortable and capable in the 21st century global village, UB’s Early Childhood Research Center (ECRC) believes in starting early.
After building a distinguished track record enriching young children’s lives by taking cues from some of the most cutting-edge early childhood education around the world, the ECRC raises the bar even further this semester with a blend of physical and mental stimulation suitable for candidates who can navigate the global village.
ECRC is offering a new program to teach non-native language — Mandarin or Spanish — to children between the ages of 2 and 5. It also has expanded its weekly movement activities for toddlers and preschoolers to include yoga, dance and creative movement classes.
Kelly Roy, clinical assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and director of ECRC, sees the mind-body continuum clearly. What makes it truly exciting for her is the chance to incorporate current knowledge of brain development into a curriculum that molds these life values into children under the age of 5.
“We have these amazing teachers with diverse perspectives and knowledge who can bring their cultures, languages and passion for their areas of expertise to our children,” says Roy.
“What an opportunity for our children. It’s also great for adults preparing to be teachers who practice with us, as well as the researchers who are studying methods.”
Roy has worked with young children from all over the world for more than 30 years.
“I’ve studied the research. I understand how progressive, high-quality, early childhood experiences can positively impact someone throughout their life,” she says. “It’s such a great opportunity that we have here at UB to bring passionate teachers committed to early childhood education together with world-class researchers studying how best to teach. We all collaborate here at the ECRC to use all that we know about young children and how to teach them to provide unique opportunities and curricula for them to learn through play, as well as prepare our next generation of teachers.”
Roy has been director of the program, which combines the study of child development, teaching and its impact on families with practical experiences for professionals in training and researchers, since 2009. The ECRC has had a multicultural focus since its inception in 1932, engaging teachers and students from all over the world. That same multicultural principle has guided the new program to teach non-native language.
“Watching them develop expressive language in two languages as virtually native speakers is just incredible to me,” she says.
“This program gives young children opportunities to learn additional languages when they’re toddlers and preschoolers, when it’s easiest for them. It also has the biggest impact on their brain development.
“It’s incredible to watch a toddler from Western New York begin to do activities directed in Mandarin when it’s completely new to them,” she says. “I knew the importance of the early childhood stage of development after having worked in this field for more than 30 years. But this program has given me a whole new respect for how important effective teaching is at this stage, as well as how smart the little ones are.”
The expanded variety of weekly movement activities for toddlers and preschoolers ties in as well with Roy’s studies of the outdoor environment for young children that support the evidence that children need to keep moving, learn positive ways to relax and de-stress, and learn healthy ways to express themselves. Roy’s research includes developing a scale that rates how much children learn outside and how children with developmental challenges can become self-determining.
“Our dance and yoga teacher conducts many of the classes outdoors,” says Roy. “We get outside and move around, even in the snow. The children love it and benefit from it in a variety of ways.”
As with all ECRC programs, the classroom curriculum and practices are rooted firmly in mainstream, professionally respected research.
The center’s dance teacher did a pilot study of imagery and dance with 4 year olds last semester, Roy says.
“She worked with them to see themselves, in their mind’s eye, performing tasks from stories, such as flying over their home, or running across a finish line, or relaxing under a tree,” she says.
“Her results were surprising in that she found that the children did use imagery to help with skill development, even as preschoolers,” Roy notes. “There has not been published work in this area previously with children this young. Elite athletes and dancers use imagery to build skills, but it has not ever been studied with young children.”
Teaching sometimes exotic and unfamiliar international languages to these preschoolers is another example of how the ECRC takes an educational task others might shy away from and makes it fun.
“One of the languages we’re teaching is Mandarin,” says Roy. “Preparing children to speak a language that is becoming one of the most important languages globally in business and commerce is essential.”
One of the ECRC teachers is a native Mandarin speaker. She plans lessons every day that include cultural activities, songs, games, writing and stories, in addition to other expressive language activities.
“Given that we just celebrated the Asian New Year,” Roy says, “it’s been impressive how the children have participated and enjoyed the activities.”
The ECRC also teaches children basic Spanish through play activities.
“Again, offering an introduction to a language so widely used worldwide is a great benefit to our children and community,” says Roy. “In addition to the immediate benefit to their abilities to learn many topics better, fluency in multiple languages can open doors for opportunity in their future.”
The ECRC roll call also includes numerous children learning two languages simultaneously between home and school.
“It’s interesting to see how they’re supported in our setting,” Roy says. “They’re toddlers who come from a home where one language is spoken, and we speak English at the ECRC. They begin with us, sometimes with no English of any kind.
“Within an incredibly short time — sometimes a couple of weeks — they begin understanding some English through our songs and routines. Within two or three months, we generally see them begin to use common phrases, as they do at that stage of development in their native language. They then develop expressive language in two languages as virtually native speakers.”
All of this learning takes place through teachers and children from different countries and perspectives playing together.
“To watch this develop every day is just astounding,” says Roy. “It truly gives you a sense of hope and an idea of the potential of the human mind and spirit.”