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GRCC’s Early Childhood Learning Laboratory provides tailored developmental learning experiences

May 23, 2024

It’s easy to think that learning begins when children enter school. But as any parent will tell you, kids figure things out much earlier than that. 

Two-year-olds, for example, know what adults do with cell phones. They know how to put toys away, even if they don’t always do it willingly. They certainly know where the snacks are stored! And they’ve figured out how to get what they want before they even have the right words.

The truth is that children start learning from the moment they are born. In fact, 90% of a child’s brain development occurs before age five. Early childhood education is vitally important to help little brains reach their full potential. Children benefit when they can experience age-appropriate learning prior to attending school. That’s one reason why Grand Rapids Community College offers an education and child development program, including a hands-on space called the Early Childhood Learning Laboratory (ECLL).

“Early childhood education is highly personalized,“ said Melissa Boman, director of the ECLL. "Our faculty and students are down on the floor, working one-on-one with each child individually. They’re also working with families. We don’t have one lesson plan…we have one plan per child!”

The ECLL is both a community service and an educational asset. Families can enroll their children from infant up to age six. Children receive age-appropriate care and development support from professional, licensed educators. 

“We ensure that children have experiences in various areas of development every day, including language arts, motor development and STEM for little ones,” Melissa notes. “The learning is tailored to their developmental needs, but they are absolutely learning.”

This experience supplements parental caregiving and instruction, and provides a way for parents to learn as well.

However, the ECLL is also a proving ground for future early childhood educators. GRCC students enrolled in the education program complete various lab rotations as they learn to work with different age groups and study human growth and development. Students work side-by-side with instructors as they write lesson plans, create age-appropriate play experiences, perform learning assessments, handle conflict resolution and much more. 

“Students gain knowledge but also the experience of putting it into practice,” Boman said. “They can take that information into the programs they serve after graduation and be leaders in this field.”

Graduates agree that the experience is priceless. Kristen Spoelman, a GRCC graduate, knows this firsthand.

“I enrolled at GRCC, seeking my bachelor’s degree in elementary education,” Spoelmen said. “I was required to take several early childhood courses, which had lab components at the ECLL. While completing my first lab, I was captivated with the learning environment, staff, and children at the ECLL. That inspired me to change my degree to early childhood education rather than elementary education.”

Spoelman said the hands-on experience provided her with a strong foundation. 

“The staff at the lab was nurturing, engaging and supportive of both children and college students. They served as a model of high-quality early childhood education, while also supporting me as a student learner,” she said. “I have the educational background that allows me to understand how children grow and develop, and how they can be best supported in a classroom setting.”

Spoelmen is now the director at an early childhood education center and she carries her ECLL experience with her into that role.

Each year, GRCC has approximately 200 students enrolled in education career pathways. All of those students engage with young children through hands-on learning at the ECLL. 

“We’re sending highly trained educators into the field every year, “ Boman said. “This isn’t an easy job, but our students are passionate about it.” 

Spoelman agreed.

“I know what a high quality early childhood environment looks like,” she said. “I strive to replicate many of the practices and strategies that I observed and engaged in at GRCC.”

Learn more about the ECLL and the educational opportunities it offers.

This story was reported by Julie Hordyk.