At first glance, the Swetman Child Development Laboratory (CDL) looks like a typical preschool with children playing with toys and creating art in a classroom. Unlike a regular preschool, it’s a hive of teaching and learning for children, staff, and Humboldt State University students and faculty.
“The fact that I can apply the concepts I’ve learned in class is one of my favorite aspects of working in the CDL,” says Child Development major Robyn Brasuell-Wax.
For the last half-century, programmatic, academic, and research aspects have been part of the CDL’s mission to be a demonstration facility for HSU students by providing a high quality pre-school for children and their families.
The first and longest nationally accredited preschool program in Humboldt County, the CDL was founded in 1968 by School of Home Economics Professor Emilla Tschantz. In honor of Tschantz, her sister, Cara, made an endowment gift of more than $500,000.
Annual income from the endowment supplements tuition costs for some families today, allowing the CDL to foster connections between children and student teachers, theory and practice, and HSU and the community.
“The CDL focuses on relationship-building and understanding the social and emotional aspect of development,” says Child Development Professor Hyun-Kyung You. “If children are nurtured to learn the value of relationships and respecting others—while being treated with respect by peers and adults—they can hopefully become more socially conscious adults.”
The CDL enrolls about 40 children each academic year and is staffed by two teachers who design and implement the program for children and work with families. They also provide on-site feedback to students and collaborate with faculty to guide students like Brasuell-Wax.
“In the CDL we talk about being the voice of reality for children, but also facilitating constructive play and exploration,” she says. “We design our curriculum around the interests of the children. For example, if the children are interested in astronauts we provide props, and introduce concepts such as gravity, control stations, and collecting specimens.”
An important feature of the CDL is the observation booth. In a private room overlooking the classroom, students learn the art and skill of observation, recording observations to compile anecdotes of developmental processes. CDL teachers incorporate these anecdotes into individual profiles that they share with families at the end of each semester.
“I love how student-teachers and children are simultaneously learning from one another,” she says.
The CDL isn’t limited to Child Development students aspiring to become teachers. Students in a variety of disciplines, including Psychology, Social Work, Communication, and Kinesiology, as well as Child Development, do observation assignments at the CDL that help deepen their understanding of child behavior.
“Oftentimes, these types of labs and centers at other universities are limited to students who want to become teachers. At HSU, all child development major students are required to have CDL hours,” says You.
The CDL also helps faculty keep their teaching and research skills sharp. Child Development Professor Claire Knox and Child Development instructor and former CDL teacher Carol West (‘90, Liberal Studies – Child Development) help their students connect theory and practice.
“In academia you can lose your touch. Working with kids and students keeps us on our toes,” says Knox. “Plus, we have examples to take to classrooms and make direct applications of science and theory.”
The personal attention and hands-on experience ultimately benefits children and their families and students and faculty.
“Kindergarten teachers in local schools say they recognize children who have been part of CDL because they’re such good problem solvers and communicate well,” says Knox. “Parents who went to the CDL as kids end up enrolling their own children. And families with children who have special needs have told us we made a difference.”
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