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Early Childhood Conference speaker: Let children explore natural world

By Susan Shinn

Smart Start Rowan

Local schoolchildren may be technologically savvy, but they have no idea what animals live in the woods nearby.

Anne Ellis has always loved science, and in her work as a science specialist at Horizons Unlimited, takes children into the woods to explore and observe nature. Ellis was the keynote speaker Saturday at the Early Childhood Conference for area childcare providers, hosted by Smart Start Rowan.

Some 150 area childcare professionals attended the fourth-annual event, held at First Baptist Church’s ministry center. The conference provides a forum for teachers to receive professional development, according to Laura Villegas, Smart Start Rowan’s director of programs.

Ellis is a graduate of West Rowan High School and N.C. State University. In school, she said, she remembers taking lots of notes, rather than going out and “doing science.” Ellis believes that science should be taught as hands-on learning.

Ellis’ husband is an art educator, and the family constantly carries sketchbooks. Drawing what you see, Ellis explained, incorporates a variety of activities. Drawing, she said, forces students to pay attention to details. They use their hands, they see a subject, and they absorb it.

“Every one of us and every one of our students are scientists,” Ellis said. “We are all explorers of the world. You have these children at the age where science is the most magical.”

Ellis said teachers should not be intimidated by science.

“Science is just exploring and observing, and figuring out the world,” she said. “What if they get dirty? What if they break something? What if you don’t know the answer? Let them figure it out.”

Ellis said that today’s children have what she calls “nature deficient disorder.” They can tell you all about rain forests and glaciers and polar bears, but they don’t know what local forests smell like and feel like.

Ellis grew up on a 20-acre farm, and in summer was not allowed to watch television.

“My mother was a teacher,” Ellis said. “She sent us outside. The only three reasons we could come inside were that we had to be bleeding, we had to have a broken bone, or we had to have a tooth knocked out. I grew up outside — spending every minute I had exploring.”

Things have changed, Ellis admitted, but said that nature is a gift.

Doing science, she said, forces children to communicate. It teaches them patience, perseverance and skepticism about the world around them.

When she takes children outside, she asks them to stop, look and listen, and discover what animals are in these habitats. Over the years, she’s collected skulls, turtle shells, feathers and snakeskins — all evidence of the creatures who live so close to us, and yet so far for many students.

Each conference centers around a theme based on feedback from attendees. Morning and afternoon sessions focused on science and math for children 0-2, 3-5 or any age. Providers chose from 18 presentations during three 90-minute sessions.

Additionally, the conference served to kick off the Week of the Young Child, according to Amy Brown, Smart Start Rowan’s executive director.

“We’re here to honor you and thank you for what you do for our county’s young children,” Brown said.

The conference recognized Child Care Professionals of the Year Award winners. They are Joeann Bullard, Cornerstone Child Development Center East, Teacher of the Year, sponsored by First Bank; Lamont Savage, L.A.S. Learning Playhouse, Family Child Care Professional of the Year, sponsored by Walser Technology Group and Martha Baker; Jennifer Martin, Cornerstone Child Development Center East, Director of the Year, sponsored by Patterson Farm and Hoffner Dairy Farm.

The following facilities received increased star ratings: Cornerstone Child Development Center Main, Salisbury Fine Arts Center, L.A.S. Learning Playhouse, 5 stars; Brighter Days Family Childcare, 4 stars.

The following providers attained the following degrees in early childhood education: April Bolder and Jasmine Miller, associates degrees; Amber Caudle and Tammy Shropshire, bachelor’s degrees; Mindy Rhodie, master’s degree.

Smart Start Rowan is a United Way Grantee Agency.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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