At Discovery Place: Children find themselves

FAIRMONT – Occupying the northeast corner of Fairmont Elementary School are a series of classrooms with tiny chairs, an abundance of colorful of toys, a messy but popular sand table and lots of young children.

Called Discovery Place, this preschool program includes five sections of classes involving 91 children ages 3-5 – and a lot of patient teachers and aides dedicated to instilling those children with a solid learning foundation.

Next week has been designated the “Week of the Young Child,” which promotes the importance of early learning, but Discovery Place got a head start on the activities this week. Tuesday was “Silly Sally Day,” when children and teachers wore mismatched clothing and walked backwards to the gym.

Fairmont Mayor Randy Quiring will read to the children during class time on Thursday, and an open house and registration for the 2014-15 school year will be held 5:30-7 p.m. that night for current and prospective families.

Preschool education is vital to the development of productive adults, according to Cindy Martens, a teacher at Discovery Place.

“The biggest piece to preschool is the social/emotional aspect,” Martens said.

There’s a strong likelihood that children will have difficulty learning if they “don’t feel safe and secure.”

In between helping her small charges draw self-portraits, starting a number recognition computer game and responding to every child who approached her, Martens explained that preschools often feel pressured to push to academics, a move she doesn’t necessarily support.

“I try to keep things developmentally appropriate for their age group,” she said. “There’s differentiated learning at this level. Some are ready to read; some don’t care about their ABCs yet.

“I try to find that balance. What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.”

Because Discovery Place is funded in part by the state, the program strictly adheres to the teacher-student ratio of one instructor per a maximum of 10 students, Martens said. She noted that aides also help bring down the adult-child ratio, offering more one-on-one interaction.

“We’re partially funded by the state,” Martens said. “Parents still pay, but we also have scholarships available.”

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Fairmont Early Childhood Initiative, a community coalition dedicated to mobilizing community resources for young children. This grassroots coalition includes volunteers representing early childhood, education, health care, Human Services, business, law enforcement, child care providers, community education, the Chamber of Commerce and private citizens.

The preschool program in the elementary school actually has two separate entities: Discovery Place for the children and Early Childhood Family Education for the children and their parents together.