Children from the New College Child Care Center play by a tree behind Cook Hall.
The New College Child Care Center sits across the road from the Palmer buildings in a 60’s era ranch-style home. The house is dappled in sunlight and brimming with people passionate about helping children learn and grow. Montessori toys are scattered throughout the ranch — revealing the center’s innovative philosophy surrounding how children develop. Each toy teaches children different practical or social skills and prepares them for later learning. A continuous squiggled line lets children practice the same motion with their fingers that they would use for cursive handwriting. A tray with a banana slicer and a little pan lets kids slice a banana and serve their peers the slices — teaching them good manners and social skills.
The children at the center come from the Sarasota community and many are children of New College faculty and staff. “There were a group of faculty members who all had children around the same time and we were friends and we knew each other,” Professor of Philosophy April Flanke described. “And then as the children were getting to be the age where we started to think about child care for them we were looking around in the community and having difficulties finding places that we were satisfied with. Also, many of us felt that it would be very nice to have the children close to us. So we thought, what a great idea to have an on-sight child care that could provide child care for faculty, students and staff and also for the surrounding community. We decided to get started and through a long process of organizing ourselves and talking to the administration and figuring out what we need, we eventually got it up and running.” The center is a non-for-profit business separate from New College. It offers scholarships to families who could not otherwise afford day care.
Director of the New College Child Care Center Todd Snavely is the heart and soul behind the center and responsible for making it what it is today. “I think that the reason we are the way we are is because of Todd Snavely,” Child Care Center teacher and alum J.D. Kelley (’03) reflected. “He has really shaped it so much. It is really his vision of an early learning environment. There is a lot of what he has been trying to do to make sure that the children are being exposed to different things. To make sure that the children are able to question and to make sure that the children have a lot of joy in their life, you know, that’s him. And it has come down to all of us.”
Snavely and the other teachers at the center follow a modified Montessori curriculum. The Montessori method is an approach to learning that stresses experiential learning and children’s self-guided development. “I really like the Montessori philosophy and I think as times change, approaches need to change,” he said.
At the center, children are encouraged to speak at a normal noise level and to compete positively with one another; the Montessori method preaches that children should be quiet and taught to be cooperative and non-competitive. “I don’t think that you can only be cooperative and live in this society — at some point you are going to be competing for something and I think that it is a good idea to know how to do it in a positive way,” Snavely said.
Teachers at the center are instructed not to force children to say sorry or to share. Snavely explains that it is not natural for young children to share and that forcing them to say sorry makes their apologies devoid of sincerity. Snavely added, “We treat the children very respectfully here. We talk to them like we would talk to anybody else really. We may use different vocabulary but we are not condescending or patronizing. And the children really respond to that. They like to be spoken to on that level.”
Another distinguishing characteristic of the Child Care Center is that it lacks a TV set — Snavely instead encourages the children to be more active. “We do have a computer that’s new this year and the children do get glazed expressions sometimes if they are doing something on the computer,” he said. “But, I think it’s important for them to learn how to use a computer because its going to be an important part of their lives as they grow up.”
An organic garden planted by New College students sits in the front of the center. Snavely said, “Our garden almost always looks lovely,” and explains that it contributes to the curriculum, emphasizing that children should learn to care for living and non-living things. The garden also reflects Snavely’s belief that children should eat healthy, nutritious food: children and their families are encouraged to take home vegetables grown in the garden. Snavely and the other teachers at the center also serve children fruit, organic yogurt with live cultures and juice mixed with water as a snack in the morning and fruit and grain in the afternoon. Though the kids bring their own lunch, their parents are told not to pack them Lunchables or candy.
Snavely says that the children encourage each other to eat healthily. “The children really kind of police themselves as far as that goes,” he explained. “If somebody brings in something that they feel is not nutritious. They’ll say, ‘That’s not good for your body, you shouldn’t eat that.’ And then it is a kind of a conflict for the child who has it because, yeah, they want to eat it, but at the same time all their friends are telling them that it’s not healthy and that they shouldn’t eat it.”
Days at the center are structured — the children have circle time at 9:00 a.m. where they are asked to participate in challenges. Sometimes they are asked to identify geometric shapes or places on a map. Snavely described one challenge: “I will close my eyes and ask them for a certain shape and they can hand that shape to me. It’s fine if they don’t know that shape because all of the other children in the circle will be frantically pointing to the right shape or what they feel is the right shape because they want to help that child out and they love helping. It is a natural thing for a child to help somebody and that way it reinforces their own knowledge.” He adds that though the children learn a lot of the same things that Montessori children would learn, they are taught in a different way. “Putting learning things in game form allows them to learn,” he said. After circle time, the children do their own independent work, often with Montessori toys.
Kelley said, “One of the things that I didn’t understand before I worked here was that children thrive on structure. I thought the opposite. With more structure the kids are more calm and relaxed because they know what to expect.”
Snavely said that he feels passionate about enabling children to reach their full potential and to develop emotionally and socially. “I have a very strong belief that children should be allowed to reach their potential,” he reflected. “They shouldn’t be restricted to a certain set of developmentally appropriate bench marks. So that’s kind of my problem with public schools. I’ve taught pre-schoolers how to multiply and divide before. I’ve had children leaving this particular school reading on a first or second grade level.”
Flakne summed up the philosophy, attitude and spirit behind the Child Care Center: “The children there have a lot of freedom. They get to benefit from this beautiful big campus the atmosphere over at the child care center is always a mixture of this sort of freedom of creativity and calm. You never hear anyone over there raising their voice at the children. The children learn to be respectful and kind towards each other. And the children learn a lot. There are both high expectations and a sense of freedom and low pressure. It’s a homelike environment but you are getting child care center quality care and that combination I think is unique.”