It would be difficult to determine which group of learners benefits most from their experiences at the Tri-County Children’s Center. While students in the Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School Early Education Program are given the opportunity to plan and implement developmentally appropriate curriculum, the preschool children receive individualized attention in a setting designed to meet their social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs.

Under the direction of three instructors, Michelle Tilden, Lisa Oxford and Dina Taylor, each of whom possesses extensive training and experience, the high school students must plan and implement curriculum for the center’s preschool and toddler programs. This involves careful research and planning prior to each session. During preschool sessions, held Tuesday through Thursday from 8:50 to 11:20 a.m., and toddler playgroup sessions, held on Mondays from 9:15 to 10:45 a.m., the students are given the opportunity to see their lesson plans come to life. When the center is closed, the students continue their studies.

“In addition to their practical, hands-on work with children, the high school students learn about developmental theory in their related theory classes,” Early Education Instructor Lisa Oxford explained. “This understanding of how children develop supports the high school students in planning and implementing the rich experiences that they provide for children, as well as the way in which they interact with children to facilitate learning.”

Through in-depth academic studies in child growth and development, students gain a solid understanding of the early childhood years and a working knowledge of children in this critical stage of their development. Students also receive CPR and First Aid training and certification.

“To watch the growth and understanding of human development from the high school students freshman year to their graduation is empowering to be involved with as an educator,” said Dina Taylor, Early Education Instructor.

In addition to their work at the center, students in the Early Education Program also complete externships and participate in the school’s Cooperative Education Program. This program gives the students additional real world experience in local day care centers and classrooms.

“Working with the children in the Tri-County Children’s Center has helped me better my understanding of development. The kindergarten class that I did my placement externship with gave me a whole new outlook on education and on life,” said Landon Callahan, a junior from North Attleboro.

The philosophy created by the Early Education instructors and espoused by the high school students permeates the center.

“Our program is based on years of sound research regarding developmentally appropriate practice,” instructor Michelle Tilden explained. “What we offer for children encompasses the whole child’s developmental needs:  physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. It is not just academics. Will they learn those foundational academic skills? Absolutely! But not at the cost of their natural joy, wonder and curiosity.”

Children’s Center parents say this commitment to meeting developmental needs has paid off. Michelle Sebio Savje, of Franklin, enrolled her daughter in the program after having a positive experience with her son two years earlier. She feels the center’s use of play helps to develop a child’s sense of self-awareness and independence, as well as their ability to play and interact with others.

“There are many studies on the subject of ‘play’ versus a more ‘structured environment.’ I have been privy to a few by the school and I have researched some of them on my own. I feel that this school of thought is the most productive for kids,” Savje explained.

On a typical day in the center, the children are given the opportunity to participate in a variety of open-ended art projects and scientific inquiry that embraces their natural sense of curiosity and wonder. They also participate in language activities, play board games that support mathematical and language concepts, browse the center’s extensive library, and simply enjoy playing with their peers. Children have the opportunity to enjoy the center’s natural outdoor play space, which is an extension of the indoor classroom. During the sessions, each child can interact one-on-one with the high school students.

“The teachers that head up the program are very hands on and involved in every aspect of the center,” said Savje. “I feel confident that when I leave my daughter there that she will be taken care of, paid attention to, but most of all that she will have fun and learn through the various activities that she can choose to participate in.”

As the center, which will hold its annual Open House on March 27 from 9 1 p.m., prepares to welcome a new group of preschoolers in the fall, they also look forward to seeing their work come full circle. Many former preschoolers return to Tri-County each year as high school freshmen.

“As a former instructor in the Early Education Program, I met many wonderful families,” said Jean George, Vocational Coordinator at Tri-County. “It now makes me proud to see many of those children that I worked with as preschoolers choose Tri-County their High School of choice.  I am so fortunate to have watched these children as they began their school experiences to now seeing how they have grown into mature, skilled young adults. It doesn’t get any better than this for me.”