For Mattie Bruning, Iowa State University’s Child Development Laboratory School has prepared her twice.
Long ago, as a child, the lab school helped her to build problem-solving and people skills. Today, as an employee, the lab school reaffirms her passion for working with kids.
“I think it’s a very enriching environment,” Bruning said. “I love it.”
The lab school is an early education program for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that has been a part of early childhood studies at Iowa State for more than 90 years.
It partners with The Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences to give observational and experiential instruction for Iowa State students who are preparing to be early childhood teachers, administrators, and child and family specialists.
“This adds a unique opportunity for students to get professional experience in their field,” said Jennifer Van Ryswyk, administrator of the lab school. “For us, it gives us an opportunity to learn from them. They’re in the classrooms learning about the philosophies. To say that we only teach them would be inappropriate — they teach us also.”
An enriching environment for kids
Iowa State has provided undergraduate students the opportunity to work at the lab school, making stories like Bruning’s possible.
Bruning, a junior majoring in psychology, attended the lab school in 1998. Her family moved here from Montana after her mom accepted a job at Iowa State. Bruning said her mom thought she was too smart for normal child care centers and wanted a more enriching environment.
The lab school was a good fit because of the way it guides students to make their own decisions.
“They would give us jobs, which we do here still,” Bruning said. “For story time, we had the little carpets and I loved taking the nametags and placing everybody’s name where I decided that they should go.”
Today, Bruning’s current duties as an employee include helping the teacher, reminding kids of what they’re supposed to do, helping with activities, cleaning, and playing with the kids.
The lab school began as the Iowa State College Nursery School in 1924. It has a long tradition of teaching through positive guidance and helping children to make appropriate choices. Though exact teaching methods have changed over time, the focus has always been a positive environment for growth and development.
“We call everybody a friend; I love that,” Bruning said.
She stressed how the school teaches good manners, respect for peers, and problem solving. If one child upsets another, students are taught to say, “I’m sorry” and “How can I make you feel better?”
Experiential learning for university students
Bruning said the energy she gets from working with the kids helps her know she’s on the right path.
She studies psychology at Iowa State and plans to go on to study either pediatric occupational therapy or applied behavior analysis. She wants to work with children with special needs, specifically with children with autism.
“We have always had a focus on teaching pre-service teachers and those in child, adult, and family services,” Van Ryswyk said. “Practicum is a very important piece and required component for early childhood education majors.”
Lulu Lancaster and Lydia Swanson first organized the nursery school to provide a hands-on teaching environment for courses in child care and training.
That remains true today. The school’s current mission is to “provide students with a hands-on experience working with and observing young children while serving as a model early childhood program for young children, including those with disabilities, and their families.”
A practicum course allows Iowa State students in human development and family studies to observe and interact with the children in the lab school.
For those majoring in early childhood education or child, adult, and family services, working in the lab school augments their experience from practicum. But undergraduate employment at the lab school isn’t limited to those majoring in human development and family studies.
“We have psych majors, we have journalism majors,” Van Ryswyk said. “We have engineering students who say, ‘This is my happy place.’ They really want to try STEM activities and engineering activities with the kids, building catapults and levers. It’s very cool.”