Innovative campus child care teaching method garners attention

The work of Campus Child Care employees was recently spotlighted at the Sharing a Vision Conference in Peoria, IL. The conference was held in partnership with the Illinois Association for Young Children on Oct. 26-27.

Barbara Zemen, Kendra Nenia and Ann Marie Kuta

Kendra Nenia and Ann Marie Kuta presented a workshop on project-based learning, which encourages teachers to observe what their students are showing interest in and then amplify it by offering additional lessons and enrichment to support those interests. Also participating in the conference from Campus Child Care was Barbara Zeman, whose work documenting infants to toddlers’ transitions through art was on exhibit.

Zeman has worked for Campus Child Care for 11 years and has undergraduate and master’s degrees in elementary education from NIU, and an associate’s degree in early childhood education. She first learned of the Sharing a Vision Conference’s Creative Expressions Art Gallery almost three years ago. That first year she participated, she submitted 20 pieces of 3-D and 2-D art, and 13 were displayed. Shortly after, she was assigned to the infant room and she knew that the following year, she would move up with the children.

“This gave me the idea to collect artwork from the children for two years and do a chronological display of their work, and the progression of it as they got older and matured,” she said of this year’s submission.

Her piece of the exhibit this year consisted of three children’s artwork collected over two years. They were displayed in chronological order, starting with the earliest piece created to the latest.

“The purpose of the Art Gallery and my display was to show that even infants can do and create art,” she said. “It was about showing developmentally appropriate practices by providing young children with as many opportunities to learn how to express themselves using a variety of media.”

Nenia has worked in the early childhood field for almost 24 years and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in early childhood education, with the goal of teaching teachers. She has worked at Campus Child Care for 14 years.

She said her work with project-based learning began as she observed the children and asked herself what they seemed most interested in, and what they were playing with the most. For example, Nenia said that for the last two weeks, the children have been playing with a tractor toy. Nenia plays along with them and talks to them about what the tractor is and what the parts, such as the plow, do. That included pulling up a short video of a tractor pulling a disc plow through a field so they could see how they work in real life.

“Everyone in the classroom was really excited to see what was happening,” she said. “Because of this interest and excitement, we decided to study farming.”

Nenia explained that using projects following children’s interests to deepen learning through play is what project-based learning is all about.

While the approach is used more often with older children, Nenia explained it’s unusual to use it with very young children because it takes more time to observe, select a topic of interest, document and prove that learning is taking place. Nenia said she believes the efforts are worthwhile, as she has seen it deepen interest.

“I really believe the higher the quality of their early experiences, the stronger their foundation for future learning,” she said. “As adults, we know we are more interested in doing things that we are interested in and enjoy. Children are the same.”

Kuta has spent most of the past 33 years working in the early childhood education field, completing her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education in 2012, and her master’s degree in education in 2013. She began working at Campus Childcare in August 2016, and is currently taking master’s level classes in the field at NIU.

“I have been in this field for many years and have seen the evolution,” she said. “Project-based learning engages children on a whole other level than any other curriculum.”

For her part of the presentation, Kuta discussed motion and how implementing project-based learning in her classroom enabled her to teach very young children the basics of physics.

“I am hoping to help teachers learn to use the interest of their classroom to excite their students into learning more by flowing with the topic of the study and have fun, play and learn all at the same time,” she said.

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