If four-year-olds can use basic scientific terms and concepts to explore the world around them, then educator Lucia French thinks even younger children in day care homes can develop early cognitive skills that will lead to success in school.
After receiving a $500,000 national grant last year to support her science-centered preschool curriculum, the University of Rochester professor has attracted additional funding to see how youngsters in family day care homes can benefit from well-designed educational activities. She is at work on a two-year project giving providers and parents the chance to interact with children on educational tasks.
"Many family day care homes give safe, custodial care, but few offer an enriched learning environment," says French, associate professor at the University's Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development. "We want to capitalize on the family providers' close relationships with parents and try to supplement the ways in which children learn at home and at school."
Recent grants totaling $140,000 from the A. L. Mailman Family Foundation, the Rochester's Child Fund of the Rochester Area Community Foundation and the Warner School will support a pilot program for about 30 family home providers in Rochester and the children in their care. Materials and training are being developed, then field-tested, and finally evaluations will document the effectiveness of the program called Partners in Caring: Directing Community Resources to Family Day Care Providers and the Families They Serve.
After years of development, French's ScienceStart! for preschoolers has shown to be highly effective in preparing children for school and in engaging their parents as the children's primary educators and advocates. Last June, she was awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the preschool program to more sites and test its success as a potential model around the nation.
"Adapting our science curriculum to family day care providers is an important next step," says French, a developmental psychologist. "The providers are eager to participate," she says, "and giving them access to materials and curriculum support motivates everyone involved."
In this phase, French is focused on how parents and day care providers interact and work with educational materials. They initiate activities that parents may not have tried with their children.
French's curriculum is quite different from early childhood programs that scatter science activities throughout their schedule. It embraces science-and the cycle of inquiry that advances science-as an essential part of the preschool experience.
Throughout the 1990s, French attracted financial support from the Frontier Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, Halcyon Hill Foundation, and Science Linkages in the Community for her work. She first began investigating the use of science with young children in 1991 when Eastman Kodak Co. offered support for that purpose.
For the three- and four-year-old children in selected family day care homes, French's curriculum will be integrated into daily activities. After new materials and training components are developed and tried, an evaluation of the impact of the curriculum will be done.