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New York City
November 2001

No Longer In Their Infancy: Centers Provide The Best of Education
By Tom Kertes

Infancy centers are becoming an increasingly sizable slice of American life. “It’s one thing to say that, in an ideal world, mothers should stay at home and raise their babies,” said Nancy Wiener, Educational Director of Upper Manhattan’s The House of Little People (HLP). “But the reality is that most families these days need two incomes to survive. So, for many mothers, staying at home is not an option any longer.”

President Lyndon Johnson, whose Operation Head Start provided the first federal funds for the “day care and education of infants and toddlers”, recognized this as far as 40 years back. Still, societal resistance has been so strong that infancy centers have only come into real vogue over the past eight to ten years. “Even today, there are still less than 500 such places in the New York Metropolitan area,” said Barbara Robinson, the Founding Director of HLP.

“I may be biased, but I’m convinced that a school like ours is actually better for an infant than being raised at home,” said Wiener. “Every single minute of every single day, there’s education going on here.”

A somewhat different center exists at the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center. “Being affiliated with Columbia University and Teachers College, we serve several different functions,” said Faculty Director Dr. Susan L. Recchia. “Besides providing day care and education, we conduct a lot of research – we are studying ourselves, if you will – and run a strong outreach program as well.”

Both centers take the approach that “an infancy center is much more than just a place where children come to play day after day.” “We are preparing the children to be successful in school – and to be successes in life,” said Dr. Recchia. Yet Rita Gold, which particularly prides itself on providing inclusive and culturally respectful care for infants, takes strong cultural cues from each individual parent, even to the point of feeding each child daily at his or her own preferred time. “That we’d never do,” said HLP’s Wiener. “Here, the children all eat together. That’s a large part of our goal of building a community.”

Community-building is the goal at Rita Gold as well. “One of the things that makes a center like this special is that the children have a chance to interact with each other – and with adults as well,” Dr. Recchia said. “We’re learning that even very young babies develop friendships. And that a chance at such early attachments makes them more advanced and socially comfortable for the future.”

At both centers, each infant pretty much has his or her very own caretaker – as well as an avalanche of vigilance from every educator in the room. “No question, at this early age, individual attention is a must,” Dr. Recchia said.

Rita Gold, more experimental due to its academic aspect, allows parents to stay for as a long as a week at the beginning of the child’s stay: “We take our cues from them”, said Dr. Recchia. HLP subscribes to the philosophy of building a child’s cognitive skills by “respecting the senses”. “At this very early age – our infants vary from the age of three months to two and a half years – every day is a transition period,” Wiener said. “A child can literally return after a weekend as quite a different little person than he was the previous Friday.”

Both centers follow the “total child” concept, dealing with their miniature clients’ development from a physical, psychological, social, and emotional point of view. “Learning about the importance of caring about others is paramount with us,” Robinson said. “You can’t have an emotionally healthy and socially successful child without that sense.”

As an educational institution, Rita Gold often uses graduate students as teachers. HLP employs strictly professionals. Rita Gold provides bilingual education whenever possible. HLP, while acknowledging cultural differences, concentrates on teaching the children in English. Rita Gold, limited to Columbia University students and faculty, costs only $75 a semester. HLP, a private school open to the general public, costs $975 a month.

Yet, in spite of – or perhaps because of – their differences, these are both schools of the very highest quality. “We take the very best of all educational theories, listen to what the children are ‘teaching us’, then mix in our own 25 years of experience,” Robinson said. “Children at this age are literally capable of absorbing anything. What we try to provide them is non-stop enhancement, socially, educationally, and emotionally.”


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