SHERIDAN — While day cares full of mindless toys and entertainment are being widely replaced with curriculum-focused early education centers across the nation, early learning is still hard to find in Sheridan County.

There is a growing belief worldwide that a child has the need for education the moment they are born and, as a result, a variety of curricula have been developed specifically aimed at educating toddlers, and even infants.

Sheridan is home to numerous pre-kindergarten facilities. Ranging from the basement of a home to large storefronts on Main Street, there is a plethora of places bearing the label “preschool” accepting children ages 3 and older.

However, the majority of these facilities claim to follow no curriculum and options for parents seeking more than play for children under 3 are very limited.


Early learning centers

This week is the “Week of the Young Child,” an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

NAEYC is a leading voice in America for education beginning at birth and offers a national accreditation system that has set the standards for early childhood education since 1985.

The purpose of the “Week of the Young Child” is to focus public attention on the needs of young children and their families and to recognize the early childhood programs and services that meet those needs.

Here in Sheridan, there are only two early learning centers for children under 3 and only one with an identifiable curriculum.

First Light Children’s Center accepts children at birth and follows the High Scope Curriculum for all ages and Marion Daycare and Learning Center accepts children at age 2 and offers a variety of learning activities, though they do not prescribe to a specific curriculum.


High Scope: A closer look

Like many early learning curricula, High Scope uses an interactive teaching environment where children work together with the teachers to design their day within the daily routine guidelines which include small group, large group, free choice, movement, rest and more.

“There are so many different components to High Scope that it allows us to branch out and be so much more than just a day care,” First Light administrator Misty Rios said. “What may look like play to an observer is work and learning to the toddler as teachers are engaging them at a variety of levels throughout everything they do.”

The teachers design lesson plans with daily, weekly and monthly focuses in mind and use multiple levels of incorporation to engage the child’s whole brain.

For example, a cubby for the coat of a girl named Melissa might bear her name, the letter “M” and a picture of the moon, all in different colors, helping Melissa to begin the process of color identification, letter recognition and sound pairing between the “m” words, just by hanging up her own coat up.

During free choice time, a child may find themselves at the sensory table, which is a bin placed at their height and filled with ever changing items for them to explore.

The table may be filled with sand and the teacher may help them identify the material, its color, what happens when you add water to it, how it feels in their fingers compared to how the sensory table of cotton next to it feels and more.

Small group time has a more pinpointed focus on the virtue of the month or the lesson of the week.

“This month’s virtue is self-control,” Rios said. “So we ask, how would children learn that? Not by reading a definition but through pictures, stories and teacher support in identifying what that virtue feels like and what it feels like when we lose our virtues.”


Technology in the classroom

Marion takes a different approach to their activities and emphasizes that in today’s world it is important to become technology proficient at an early age.

Each classroom is equipped with a wall-mounted television, movie player and at least one Nabi.

Nabis are tablets designed specifically for children and Deonn Brown, executive director of Marion, hand selects age appropriate learning activities for each classroom’s devices.

For example, in the 2-year-old classroom, children will gather on the rug in front of the television being fed the Nabi images so they can all follow along to apps like Counting Robot and word puzzles.

“Kids are like little sponges at 2,” Brown said. “If you can start educating them at that young age, they will continue to progress through all ages.”

Brown says Marion does not follow a set curriculum but pulls aspects from several that they like.

Some elements include circle time, exercise time and sensory time with activities like shaving cream on balloons.


Testing and accreditation

Monitoring the progress of a young child is a different process than that of a school-aged kid.

Marion teachers do assessments of their children and red flag areas of concern.

For the past three years, 100 percent of the children to leave their pre-K program have passed the kindergarten readiness test.

First Light says their system is not about immediately labeling the children with “cans” and “can nots” but is focused on hiring college educated teachers with a passion for young children that are able to monitor the progress of their classrooms and adapt their lesson plans accordingly.

They require their teachers to receive on-going education and are also in the process of becoming a NAEYC accredited learning institute. One thing both centers agreed on is that early learning is crucial and a visit to come and see what their 2-year-olds are capable of is the best way to explain why.