Reflections on a century of nurturing children, teaching students, building community, and supporting families
On a bright, beautiful spring morning recently, about 65 preschool children lined up outside the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University, where several busy teachers organized their wiggling charges into small groups. With each student gripping a long, colorful velvet rope in their tiny hand, teachers slowly guided the caterpillar-like clusters up College Avenue, up the Memorial Steps, and across the academic quad, all the while singing songs and observing the world around them.
They were on their way to an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School (EPCS), and they were about to give a special performance to an audience of parents, teachers, and various friends of the school.
Amid flowering trees and under the watchful eye of Jumbo, the university’s mascot, the children formed a horseshoe shape around an energetic instructor holding an acoustic guitar. They launched into an upbeat song with a chorus that served as a tribute to Jumbo:
“Here’s our old friend Jumbo,
standing on the hill,
looking proud and happy,
and he knows just how you feel.”
The verses incorporated movement suggestions, like swinging arms or turning around, which helped settle the kids into the event and prepare them to listen to the story of how the school was started one century ago by two women who wanted to help children be healthier and happier.
Trail-blazing from the Start
Told by Martha Pott, Distinguished Senior Lecturer in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, whose office at Tufts looks out onto the EPCS playground, the narrative of the school’s history goes something like this:
A long time ago, before preschools existed, an American woman named Abigail Adams Eliot heard that England was opening schools for young children. She traveled to England on a ship for weeks to meet the founder of the nursery schools and to study the schools. When she got there, she saw lots of great things in the classrooms, like balls, toys, and books, but the kids didn’t look healthy. She noticed they were not playing outside. So, she decided to start a school where outdoor play was prioritized.
In 1922, with assistance from Elizabeth Ware Winsor Pearson, Eliot established the Ruggles Street School and Training Center, one of the first nursery schools in the United States. It became a natural training ground for preschool teachers and served as a research site for those interested in learning about healthy, active young children—an interest that had emerged with the establishment of child development as a field of study.
In 1926 the Ruggles Street School became the Nursery Training School of Boston, reflecting its focus on teacher training, and in 1951, it began its affiliation with Tufts, allowing teachers to pursue their college education in conjunction with training in a preschool setting. In 1964, the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development was formally established, with EPCS as its laboratory-demonstration facility.
How To Get Involved
Did you attend EPCS as a child? Do/did your children attend EPCS? The school would love to hear from you and welcomes you to participate in their Centennial Celebration. Share your contact information with the school to stay updated on plans. Upload photos, videos, and other memories from EPCS or the Department of Child Study.
Today, EPCS provides an exemplary early education and care program for local families with children ages 2 years and 9 months to 7 years. The school is grounded in the principles of child development and developmentally appropriate practice, and guided by core values of anti-bias education, connecting children with the natural environment, mindfulness, and developmental technologies.
“We strive to provide children what they need to deepen their sense of self and self-worth, and to be diverse and inclusive in all identity dimensions,” said Hanna Gebretensae, director of EPCS since 2013. “And we’re proud of the strong, meaningful connections that have been built between and among children, families, and staff to make a vibrant, compassionate, and resilient school community, which have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of children.”
At another recent anniversary event for the school—this time, on an overcast, drizzly morning—a few important guests joined EPCS families and staff on the grassy hill behind the school to celebrate the centennial milestone. "We're celebrating Eliot-Pearson Children's School, one of the first nursery schools in the country, because of the hard work and dedication of all those who came before us,” said Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn. “The Children's School is invaluable to our community, and we are so thankful to have you."
She was introduced by Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco, who spoke above the hum of children playing nearby to emphasize the importance of integrating education and research and applying it to the area of child development. “The school’s home at Tufts University is very important,” he said, “because it sits alongside not only the Eliot-Pearson Department, which believes in the school’s mission, but it also collaborates with other departments, like occupational therapy, engineering, nutrition, and the fine arts. We need all of these disciplines to help our children.”
Then and Now
“There’s just something about the Children’s School culture that is intensely personal,” said John Hornstein, AG76, a child development specialist who works as a consultant with EPCS. “The teachers are highly concerned with the individual child and how they are both thinking and feeling. They get to child's level, and they respect the child's opinion in a way that you rarely see even in the best programs. No child is excluded in this community.”
Hornstein has a unique then-and-now perspective on EPCS. In the mid-1970s, he was a graduate student at Tufts with a psychology background who was interested in language development. He decided to observe a class at the Children’s School, and the experience changed his professional trajectory. He applied for a research assistant position and was hired.
“What became clear to me early on was that this environment for children was a way for them to become people, which I was concerned about because I was concerned about the future of the world,” he said. “I thought maybe working with young children was a good way to make the world a better place. Throughout my career, it's been somewhat of a moral decision to work with children.”
After earning a master’s degree at Tufts, he went on to receive a doctorate in human development from Harvard University, where he studied under famed pediatrician and author Thomas Berry Brazelton. Decades later, Hornstein returned to Tufts in 2017 as a visiting scholar in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and worked with EPCS in that capacity for two years. Ever since, he has continued to serve as a consultant to the school, supporting teachers with professional development and communicating with families to support the school’s focus not only on child development, but on family development.
“Teachers here are always curious about what makes children and families thrive,” he said. “I've done a lot of different things in my career but coming back to Tufts was like coming back to the foundation of observation and understanding the mix of moral, emotional, and cognitive development.”
(In the audio clip below, listen to EPCS students sing "This Little Light of Mine" at a Centennial Celebration event recently.)
The Family Factor
Nicole Laskowski, a member of the EPCS parent-teacher advisory board, has a six-year-old daughter, Hazel, who attends the school. About four years ago while searching for preschools, she and her husband were drawn to EPCS because of the school’s focus on nature and technology education, as well as their commitment to diversity. As a parent, she said she appreciates the “almost anthropological” way that teachers observe and document the kids’ development, and some of those materials are sent home to show families a full story of the child’s day.
“The idea of the lab school, with graduate students in the classroom with the kids, is really special,” she said. “It’s education on display. The children see that there are grownup students in the classroom, too.”
To Hornstein’s earlier point about the intensely personal culture, Laskowski cites the emergence of observation-based curriculum in which teachers develop some of their curriculum based on the children’s interests and questions. For example, last year, her daughter had a teacher that she really liked but also felt quite shy around. So, Hazel started “spying” on the teacher, and her classmates joined the game. It turned out many kids liked the idea of being a spy.
“It inspired the beginnings of a project that took on a life of its own: The Safe, Strong, and Free Spy Academy,” said Laskowski. “The teachers had kids come up with code names, complete exercises to train their bodies and minds, and go out on assignments or missions. Taking this thread from Hazel and building something bigger kept my daughter engaged, but it also sent an invaluable message. There is space for her in this community. Her voice is important.”
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