The bright, richly cluttered room surges with one- and two-year-olds trying out toys, their own legs, and separation from their mothers. At one end, the mothers and an early childhood specialist settle into their own agenda of learning. A bell rings, and eight boys and girls in their early teens swing in, put their books up, and join the toddlers purposefully.
A teacher moves about, watching the mix of seventh graders and little ones as they work together on problems of play, toys, mine and thine, trust and patience. From time to time she interjects a suggestion for a new activity, a different strategy. Mostly she just watches.
Budget considerations may crowd out expensive enrichment programs in public schools like this one in Clayton, Mo. But right now the Junior High School Program in Child Development at Hanley Junior High School is paying off richly in joy and understanding and a sense of competence for the seventh and eighth graders who participate in it.
"What do you like about it?" I asked.
"What I like most," said Gail thoughtfully, "was getting a little girl not to be afraid of me." Then in a rush, "You see a lot of different kinds of kids, and it's fun to try and get them over their problems. You learn to be patient. You learn how different children are from each other."
For Greg, the high times come when the children come to him, "because they like to be with me. You learn how to act with them so they understand you. Their behavior is important to me," he went on. "I don't mind a bad child. I just give him more attention and try to teach him what is good and bad."
"It's fun," said Brad, "because you're helping someone out. I never really thought about taking care of children before this."
The children work with the children for a little over a half hour. Then the little ones are restored to their mothers, and the junior high schoolers gather with the teacher to discuss their experiences and observations, comparing today's one- and two-year-olds with yesterday's two-and three-year-olds. They are encouraged to sum up their observations and to peg specific behaviors to general statements about child development from their reading. They talk about problem situations they encounter with the babies and different ways they have solved them.
The child development program was added to the junior high school curriculum in September 1979, with funds from a federal grant. This year the Clayton School District is maintaining the Junior High School Program, somewhat reduced in scope, in its regular budget.
According to Barbara Kohm, who developed and directs it, the idea was to extend an already well-developed early childhood program so that junior high school students would have a practicum experience in parenting skills that would benefit them in several ways. The goal was to give some basic child development information, develop observational abilities, and teach some practical babysitting.
At the same time the program would help meet the need of these pre-adolescents to feel competent, to assume responsibilities, to be helpful, and to feel loveD. Since students who complete the program successfully can have their names on a babysitting list maintained by the school as a service for parents, what they learn in the workshop puts them in a position to earn money.
As Kohm sees it, junior high is a transition age. Seventh graders still have a lot of child in them; they enjoy playing themselves -- crawling through tunnels or building block cities or playing with trucks. They need real responsibility. For most of them babysitting is the first real adult responsibility open. They fill a real need; they have a job for which they are paid; and they receive the uncalculating love of the little ones.
For seventh graders, the seminar, which includes reading, observation, and practice, is incorporated in an already existing required home economics class. For eighth graders, the semester long course on family living is an elective, carrying one credit.
For Kohm, it is a curriculum in caring teaching skills and fostering attitud es.