Cultural Awareness for Young Children is at some point a required textbook for anyone pursuing a degree in Education. It is a wonderful book outlining methods for teaching customs of other cultures to young children. It also happens to be written by East Dallas’s own Judy Allen, and serves as the curriculum for her highly praised school, The Learning Tree.
The Learning Tree is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and, as one of the most successful preschools in the country, there is much to celebrate. The Learning Tree was started in 1970 by Allen and Cultural Awareness co-author Earldine McNeill. The emphasis was, and continues to be, creating an environment where young children from many cultures can come together to learn, laugh and play. It is also a place filled with love and affection, which is especially important to Learning Tree parent Michelle Cole. “There are a lot of Mother’s Day Out and preschool type programs out there,” says Cole, “but I am convinced that the Learning Tree is the most nurturing and caring place I could possibly have my children.”
Cole is so committed to the philosophy of the school that she currently has all three of her children enrolled there, and happily travels from out of the area to attend. “People come to The Learning Tree from all over,” she explains. “I’ve heard of people driving in from places like Rockwall and Rowlett.”
The school is unique in its approach to early childhood education, and parents of the children who attend The Learning Tree agree with its emphasis on multiculturalism. The school is arranged around the concept of an informal learning environment that utilizes an open classroom. For each topic taught, the classroom is arranged into Learning Centers that encourage self-paced exploration. The Learning Centers include Family Living, in which children are encouraged to dramatize and role play; Manipulatives and Games, where children work on fine motor skills and math concepts; a Music and Dance Center, designed to encourage emotional and physical expression while developing gross motor skills; and a Language Development Center, which develops auditory and visual communication skills.
In addition, there are Centers dedicated to Nature and Science, Blocks, Art Expression, Books and Pictures, and Woodworking. According to Judy Allen, “although the teacher suggests, prods, challenges, stimulates and demands through the planned environment, each child is free to make discoveries, explore skills, initiate ideas, and test his or her abilities.”
Allen refers to this style of education as “Discovery Learning.” It is a style that appears to be working.Learning Tree parents are constantly amazed at the amount of cultural knowledge their children absorb at the school. “My children are constantly teaching me about the clothing and foods of other cultures,” raves Cole. “I’m always very impressed by the amount of vocabulary about a specific culture that they have learned.”
While the school is considered one of the best in the country, its unique approach has caught the attention of educators from outside the United States as well. In 1988, The Learning Tree was visited by a delegation of teachers and businessmen from Japan. The group was studying informal education methods in an attempt to relieve the high amount of stress experienced by students in traditional Japanese educational settings. Two schools in Texas were selected.
Although it is always a challenge to maintain a diverse student population, Judy says she is pleased with the demographics of the school. Children who attend The Learning Tree come into the world with very real respect and admiration for other cultures.And Judy feels that a measurable change in our society’s views on multiculturalism has taken place in the years since she first started the school.
“When Earldine and I started the school, we were considered the front-runners in multicultural education,” says Allen. “Our biggest problem was finding written materials that were accurate and did not present stereotypes about different cultures. “Now, many books about other cultures are available to children, and she views this as proof that her mission for the school is still relevant.
Since co-founder McNeill’s retirement, Allen’s primary assistant at The Learning Tree has been her daughter, Dandi Weiss.Weiss serves as the business manager for the school and teaches the two- and three-year old class.Allen describes her as an “expert” on young children, and says she may someday turn the reins over to her daughter.
Not any time soon, though. “At this point,” Allen says, “I love my work so much that I can’t even think about retiring!”