Where learners are teachers

Ninety years after its founding, the Mills College Children’s School utilizes a comprehensive, hands-on approach to help student teachers cultivate academic, social, and emotional intelligence in young learners.

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By Linda Schmidt

When Mills College opened its Children’s School in 1926, it became the first campus-based demonstration “nursery school” on the West Coast. Its student teachers, guided by highly educated faculty, were grounded in the latest scientific theories of child behavior and development.


As the school marks its 90th anniversary, it now serves children up through fifth grade. But it continues to combine theory and practice for those who are preparing for a variety of careers, including early childhood and elementary school teaching, college-level teaching, school administration, research, early childhood special education, and child life in healthcare settings. And as they did nearly a century ago, Children’s School student teachers work in the classroom with master teachers, gaining hands-on experience with children in varying stages of development. “They’re not just learning from books,” says Debbie Brown, head of the Children’s School. “They’re getting mentorship about how to set up the environment and the curriculum, and to think about how children learn through play.”


Developing a curriculum that emerges from children’s interests and creates a deep, meaningful learning experience for young students is at the heart of the Children’s School approach. “Our children in K-1 recently did a unit on trees,” Brown says by way of example. “They walked around campus to see what kinds of trees are here. They learned why trees are important and valuable, what they provide for humans and for the animals who live or feed in them, and about the impact of cutting trees down.” This series of activities integrated reading and writing with science, social studies, and even service learning as the children planted trees for a local reforestation project.

The Children’s School model also incorporates a focus on social justice, even for very young children. The tree studiers, for example, learned about Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who earned a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in environmental conservation and human rights. “The questions the children asked were very inquisitive, very complex—and this is just in first grade!” says Brown. “When a child is taking that inquiry stance and wants to learn, they’re like a sponge. They can understand big ideas if we present them at an appropriate level.”


Brown stresses that academic basics are essential, but the Children’s School cultivates all aspects of the child’s growth, including their social and emotional development. “We think about how we can help them learn to build empathy and relationships; how children who might not speak up so much can learn to build their voice and be assertive and how children who love to speak up can learn to listen.” Such skills and strategies give children the sense of self that will allow them to succeed as they move on to middle school and higher grades.


This approach also helps student teachers understand the limitations of a prescribed curriculum and recognize how different methodologies succeed for different children. “It’s a matter of paying attention to the whole child,” says Brown. “Some parents, when they’re on a tour, ask, ‘What type of child are you trying to create?’ But it isn’t one type of child— what we’re trying to foster is each child learning to be their own unique self.”

Families from around the Bay Area, representing a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, are engaged as partners in their children’s formal education. “We value parents as their child’s first teacher,” says Brown. “And we intentionally work to build community.” Parents gather for a coffee circle each Friday, spend time in classrooms, and often stay to chat and relax following afternoon pickup— a lesson in connectedness that serves teachers well in cultivating relationships that will help their future success.


Brown, who has been a teacher and principal at public schools in San Leandro and Napa, understands that it can be challenging to transfer the lessons of this environment to real-world situations. Adhering to standards imposed by the state and federal governments, a lack of funding, and sometimes inconsistent leadership can make it difficult for schools to adequately meet the needs of the children in their classrooms. “When I was an administrator in the public schools, teachers just wanted me to go buy a scripted curriculum that was supposed to be ‘good for kids.’ That makes life easier. Here at Mills we create strong, critically thinking teachers who understand the complexities. Even if they are in a district that provides a curriculum, they’ll know how to breathe life into it.”

“All schools are places of teaching and learning,” Brown adds. “But what differentiates us, as a lab school, is that the children are teaching us as much as they are learning themselves.” ◆