The Child Development Labs are Going Green

<p>UConn infant teacher Tracy Clark works with children at the Child Development labs on campus. Photo by  Lauren Cunningham</p>
Infant teacher Tracy Clark works with children at the Child Development Labs on campus. Photo by Lauren Cunningham

The University’s Child Development Laboratories are now one of four Eco-Healthy Child Care centers in the state of Connecticut.

Eco-Healthy Child Care is a national program that encourages child care settings to be as healthy, safe, and green as possible by reducing children’s exposure to toxic substances.

The Child Development Laboratories, located on the Storrs campus, serve up to 68 children ages six weeks to five years. The laboratories provide teaching, training, and research in early childhood education and development as part of UConn’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Over the past year, the laboratories have managed to make significant environmentally-friendly changes in their classrooms and programs, despite a limited budget. Some of the amendments that have been made include using stainless steel utensils rather than plastic, replacing plastic cups and paper napkins with ones made from recycled materials, and replacing commercial aerosol air fresheners with ones made from essential oils, according to Anne Bladen, the labs’ executive director and a lecturer in human development and family studies.

“I wanted to help make it a more cohesive center because the building is not designed for interaction,” says Bladen. “I looked to the environment to help give the building a more welcoming and friendly atmosphere.”

<p>Preschoolers play with blocks from natural materials in an effort to be more environmentally conscious in the Child Development Labs on campus. Photo by  Lauren Cunningham</p>
Preschoolers play with blocks made from natural materials. Photo by Lauren Cunningham

Program staff were also able to cut their use of paper by opting for electronic communications and supplying the children with recycled paper for coloring. The addition of plants in the classroom serves to emphasize the presence of nature as well as improve air quality and, as of last year, the child labs started providing the children with healthier snacks that included organic fresh fruits and vegetables. The labs are also switching from plastic toys to wooden toys made out of non-treated wood so they are safe for children.

In addition to changes in the physical environment, staff at the child labs have added programs that focus on conserving resources, such as clothing swaps or “hand-me-downs” for kids who have outgrown their old clothes, and book donations to shelters. A Nature Club was established for the children and their parents where they go for nature walks on campus to look at the trees and other natural life. The parents’ involvement with the green initiative enables the children to be exposed to helping the environment at home as well as at school.

Teachers at the child labs say they are excited about the change because of the many fun experiences the children will gain from it.

<p>UConn preschool teacher Heather Leeman works with children at the Child Development labs on campus. Photo by  Lauren Cunningham</p>
Preschool teacher Heather Leeman works with children at the Child Development Labs. Photo by Lauren Cunningham

“Teaching outside is not the same as in a classroom, it’s a different learning experience that heightens the children’s senses,” says Bladen. “We explain the importance of recycling to the kids and they’re really excited to help the environment. We’re instilling a respect for nature in them at an early age that will only mature over time.”

UConn’s child labs are working towards becoming nationally certified as a Nature Explore Classroom site through the Arbor Day Society. The Nature Explore Classroom is a national initiative that provides children with specially designed playgrounds that use the natural world as a large part of the learning process.

Bladen worked with Professor Kristin Schwab on landscaping plans for the child labs’ playground, which now includes play equipment made from recycled materials. Schwab is a professor of landscape architecture in the UConn Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. According to Bladen, there used to be an old, cracked brick wall that surrounded the playground, but it was taken down and the UConn carpentry shop instead built raised cedar planting beds for the area. The children can now help grow plants in the different gardening plots that have been added for the infant and preschool programs.