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Playing to Learn

With a focus on learning through play, the North Mississippi Child Care Resource and Referral Center provides parents and teachers free training, tips and tools for a successful educational foundation for young children.

Written by Sonia Thompson | Photographed by Joe Worthem

Walking into the large, bright classroom inside the University of Mississippi’s Insight Park, there are cheerful bulletin boards, rows and rows of educational toys, blocks, dolls, musical instruments, and shelves and shelves of books — basically, a young child’s paradise.

But what looks like a fancy preschool setup is actually the North Mississippi Child Care Resource and Referral Center, a training and support facility for educators, parents and guardians. For anyone who has ever tried to educate or even entertain a 2-year-old for any extended amount of time, this is excellent news.

The center is grant-funded through the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Kellogg Foundation, and it is partners with the North Mississippi Education Consortium and the UM Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning. Its mission is to provide educational resources for parents and on- and off-site coaching and assistance to teachers and local child care workers.

“This is the state model. If you’re running or starting a child care center, you know what the best science says about how children learn and how the environment should be appropriately developed for that,” said Dr. Cathy Grace, co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning. “We also encourage parents when they’re making decisions about where their child is in child care, that they see their centers are set up somewhat like this.”

The model classroom is broken up into three age groups, nonmobile, 18-36 months, and 3 years and older. There are age-appropriate learning stations and toys found in each section.

“We rotate these materials often. We want it to look like a classroom as much as we can,” program manager Hannah Sanders said. “Whenever a teacher or parent comes in, we want to help them know what to look for. So, if it’s December, you want to see winter scenes, you want to see snowflakes on a bulletin board, you want to see your center is moving along, that it’s not just stagnant.”

In addition to the mock classroom area, the center also offers a fully stocked library of toys and books available for check out. According to Sanders, they offer more than 3,000 resources ranging from coding, robots, STEM and STEAM, language and literacy, science, math, gross motor and fine motor activities. There is an emphasis placed on age-appropriate inclusive toys, which can look like a doll with a wheelchair, or building blocks that represent all the different types of dwellings children may live in, ranging from a house or apartment to a trailer or a hut.

“For example, we have books about differing abilities, we have books about culturally appropriate foods,” Sanders said. “If you have a new baby coming into your house, we have a book on that. Any book you can think of, we probably have that type of category here.”

But the dedicated staff at the center will also bring their resources directly to the people who need it, going into the Lafayette County community and working in eight surrounding counties to better educate Mississippi’s early childhood educators.

Katie Mullins is the center’s coordinator of professional development, and she is a free resource for teachers and day cares.

“I go into child care centers and provide coaching to teachers who maybe need different approaches or some different strategies to use in their classrooms,” Mullins said. “Research shows that the first three years of a child’s life are the most crucial, because that’s when their brain is growing the most. They need experiences, they need hands-on learning that we don’t always see in our school systems or in our day cares.”

One instance stands out in Mullins’ mind from training out in the field.

“I went into a child care center once where there were 2- and 3-year-olds doing worksheets,” she said. “Now we know that’s not developmentally appropriate, and I was seeing a lot of behavior meltdowns. I worked with the teacher and the director to set up learning centers. I checked back in a few months later and all of the children were just glowing and happy, and they were doing hands-on, experiential learning. And the teacher just looked at me and said, ‘It works!’”

Visit or follow @northms_ccrr on Instagram or Facebook for more information and updates. Make an appointment online to bring children to the supervised play area for one hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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