At the Auburn University Early Learning Center, or AUELC, young students learn much more than the letters of the alphabet. By combining the cutting-edge research of the Human Development and Family Science department in the College of Human Sciences and lessons about humanity, the AUELC prepares young learners to enter school as compassionate, well-rounded students.
The center is an educational training laboratory located in the heart of Auburn’s campus since 1926, and emphasizes social skills and healthy brain development in addition to basic pre-school knowledge. By encouraging children’s inquisitive nature and supporting play therapy, the center ensures healthy early childhood development in a fun environment.
AUELC Director Sharon Wilbanks said the center is family-oriented, introduces cultural competency, and emphasizes relationship-building. By sharing in the students’ enthusiasm and setting good examples, Wilbanks said teaching small motor and executive functioning skills becomes natural.
“We don’t just enroll your child, we enroll the whole family,” Wilbanks said. “Respect for childhood as a culture and for children as individuals is the backbone, the underpinning, of everything that we do. This includes respect for all individuals: our students, our families, and our children. When you treat someone with respect and dignity, regardless of if that person is a college student or a child or a parent, building those relationships lays the foundation for education.”
AUELC sets itself apart from traditional pre-schools in that it focuses on celebrating childhood and educating through inquiry-based, child-directed play. For example, if a child gets excited about seeing construction equipment on the way to school, the teacher would follow the interest of the child and provide resources and activities to extend the interest. The master’s level teachers focus on developing the whole child in an integrated, collaborative curriculum. AUELC children will play with Play-Doh to build muscles in their hand, then improve their writing via immersive activities such as pretending to be a doctor taking notes and writing prescriptions. While pretending to be a doctor, the child is also learning social skills, leadership, and empathy.
Marcy Crouch is a mother of two whose family moved to Auburn at the beginning of last year’s quarantine period. In addition to preparing for entry into K-12, Crouch said the center helped her oldest son build social skills he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn during quarantine in a new place. “It was a big transition for them: new state, new school, no friends, then quarantine…that’s a lot for a little kid to handle. The changes I saw in him were in writing letters, he wasn’t writing letters when he started, and he was confident and having fun, leading his friends, not feeling afraid and excited to move on,” Crouch said. “He has a huge love of learning and they foster that at the learning center, so these new situations like kindergarten or getting on the bus or karate, he’s not afraid because he’s had positive social experiences and teachers who support him.”
Crouch’s youngest son will attend next year, and she recommends AUELC based on the expertise of the teachers, the small class sizes, the one-on-one instruction, and Wilbanks’ leadership. Crouch said she also loved that the center is part of the early childhood development program.
Part of the center’s novelty is in its research, teaching, and extension capabilities. In addition to the three and four-year-old students, undergraduate, graduate, and research assistant students study at the AUELC. The center supports research in human development, and in turn, bases its philosophy on the latest in best practices. They then aim to share that knowledge with agencies around the country.
Madison Newton is a Human Development and Family Science graduate currently in Auburn’s Master of Social Work program. During her undergraduate career, Newton completed lab hours at the AUELC and said she “fell in love” with the family atmosphere.
Newton said her experience as a graduate teaching assistant, setting up lesson plans, and following child-directed play prepared her for the Child Life internship, one of the most competitive in the undergraduate HDFS program. She said the most rewarding part of her job at AUELC was seeing children grow into social, independent students.
“The AUELC has prepared me tremendously for my future career. I want to work with children impacted by cancer. In that field, it is important to normalize their environment and the [AU]ELC does just that. I’ll have many lesson plans and activities up my sleeve to help make my future patients comfortable. I have the confidence to work with children and in my own abilities,” Newton said. “The AUELC is a unique opportunity that has shaped the way I view and work with children and their families. It has given me more than I could ever give back. I am a better person because of my time at the center and I am eager to start implementing what I learned in my professional career, and even my personal life when I have children one day.”
Last year, the center lost six weeks of instruction when the university closed in-person operations. This year, the center completed a full academic year. Wilbanks said regular operations have not significantly changed, as the center has always been vigilant about health and cleanliness.
During regular years, the AUELC opens enrollment on October 1 for the following academic year, but accepts applications year-round. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the center has used a rolling enrollment system. As COVID-19 restrictions relax, Wilbanks hopes parents will weigh the benefits of a high quality preschool program against the diminishing risk of COVID-19.
“Children are extraordinarily resilient and they live up to the expectations you set very quickly. We’ve always known that social development is key for these early years and kindergarten teachers expect them to come in with social skills as well as academic skills,” Wilbanks said. “Everything we know about child development says the social piece is the most important piece. We’ve had zero COVID-19 transmission in this building. We’ve carried on with best practices and we’ve had a great year. These children are getting social experiences that they would not get if they were in another type of setting or if they were quarantined at home.”
For more information, visit aub.ie/auelc.