Learning From Children

The Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory turns 90.

Elizabeth Andrews can still remember running through the two giant hedges of honeysuckle along the pathway to the front steps of the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory as a young girl. She remembers turning the steering wheel of the big red firetruck on the playground. And she can still picture herself helping the cook make Spanish rice for her favorite time of the day, snack time.

Now, decades later, when she drops her 5-year-old daughter off at the Lab School, the honeysuckle bushes and play firetruck are no longer there. But for Andrews, BA ’01, going to the Lab School still feels like coming home. Attending the Lab School is a bit of an Andrews family tradition. Her mother, a proponent of early child development, worked at the school and placed her and her sister in the program in the ’80s. In 2011, when Andrews found out she was pregnant, she immediately put her child on the waitlist. “I have these incredibly experienced allies who are invested in the long-term experience of my family and of my child,” Andrews says. “That’s so valuable to me.”

Since the Lab School, a UT-affiliated school for children 18 months to 6 years old, opened in 1927, it’s been a home for children and early child development academics alike. The school is a training and research facility tucked away in the Seay Building on the corner of Speedway and Dean Keeton. While UT students walk past the building on their way to class, children inside scuffle down the hallways or laugh while playing on the gated outdoor playground. Each classroom has a master teacher with at least a master’s degree in child development or a related field, a graduate assistant, and undergraduate students volunteering or observing as part of a course assignment. “We’re all learners,” says Lab School director Amy Bryan, BS ’91, MS ’00, PhD ’10, Life Member. “It’s not just a school for kids. It’s for grown-ups too.”

Master teacher Hallie Speranza with her 3- and 4-year old class. Credit: Vivian Abagiu

Records from the Department of Education show that the Lab School, which began as part of the original child studies movement in the U.S. with a $10,000 grant from the Texas Public Health Association, is one of the oldest continuously operated early child education programs in Texas. Originally called the Nursery School, the program was housed in the former home of UT-Austin President H.Y. Benedict on 26th Street. The primary purpose was to “provide a training school for motherhood,” according to a 1928 article in Bryan, Texas’ local newspaper The Eagle. Children were weighed and measured frequently and given daily health checks consisting of doses of cod liver oil.

Now, the Lab School is fully modernized, and fit with an outdoor nature center; observation booths; a kitchen; and classrooms filled with books, writing materials, instruments, and toys. The Lab School uses an emergent curriculum, meaning lessons are created based on the children’s expressed curiosities. Though this practice is recommended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, it is often not implemented in early childhood settings. “Everything they do here at the lab is child-
directed, play-based learning,” Bryan says. “We have decades now of research across a lot of different fields that show that play is the most powerful medium through which small children learn about the world.”

When a class was on the playground earlier this year, a few children grew curious about clouds in the sky. They began asking questions: Why do they move? Why are they all different shapes? The teachers zeroed in on the children’s interests and figured out a way they could investigate these questions together, spending weeks learning about different types of clouds and creating cloud-themed art projects. “We’re watching and listening all the time and capitalizing on children’s intrinsic curiosity and motivation to learn,” Bryan says. “When they ask questions about the world, our teachers move in and find out what the children already know and what they want to know, and together they come up with how they can find answers.”

The outdoor playground is fit with an herb and mud hut where children pretend to bake. Credit: Vivian Abagiu.

Four-year-old Rosemary Miles looks at insects in the science center. Credit: Vivian: Abagiu.

Aside from being a haven for young children, the school has been a resource for students from all over the world. Zainab Umar, an early childhood special education graduate student, saw an advertisement for a volunteer position at the Lab School while she was in Nigeria. When she applied and got the job, she moved to Austin to work and finish her graduate degree at UT. She spends her mornings working with children at the Lab School and plans to use what she’s learned there in the future, helping third-world countries with special education and child development programs. “My experience at the Lab School has shaped my mind a lot and given me ideas about what steps to take to be able to accomplish that,” Umar says.

For Andrews, the program’s approach to learning was especially helpful when her mother died last year. She says the teachers were a great resource for helping her daughter Ainsleigh handle the experience of losing a loved one. They helped prepare her for the funeral and answer tough questions. “Now, even six months later, when questions or ideas that she has around the whole experience pop back up, I can go in and talk with her teacher and say, ‘These are the questions she’s asking me. This is how I’m answering them. Do you have any more input?’” Andrews says.

Since bringing Ainsleigh to the Lab School, Andrews says she’s noticed her confidence and relationships with adults and children improve. At the end of each school day, the teachers give parents an update on how the day went. Sometimes they notice growth spurts or the child using new words. Andrews says she’s grateful for these interactions. “They’re not just people keeping my child alive during the day,” she says. “They’re actively looking for ways to enrich her.”


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