In 1973, when she joined Barnard’s toddler center, Patricia Henderson Shimm was definitely breaking new ground. Not only were there no other pre-school programs that specifically catered to the toddler set at that time, the very notion of sending 2-year-olds to nursery school was an entirely new concept. Just finding enough toddlers to get the centerup and running was a major challenge. “It was basically unheard of,” says Shimm, who was hired to serve as the center’s founding teacher by its then director, the late Frances Schacter. An assistant psychology professor at the College, Schacter specialized in early-childhood development, as have subsequent directors, and conceived the idea for the center.
Shimm’s original mandate was to create “a low-key play center” where parents could bring their youngsters two mornings a week and Barnard professors and students could study the toddlers’ development, an important aspect of the center; at the time there was very little research being done on that specific age group. Research on toddler development continues to play a vital role even as the facility encourages young children to learn through creative play and activities. All studentswho work at the center, which is affiliated with Barnard’s psychology department, are enrolled in an eight- credit yearlong course. Undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, and educational specialists from around the world are frequent visitors and observers as well.
Persuading parents to sign up their toddlers took some real doing. “At first, no one came,” says Shimm, who remembers literally standing outside the Barnard campus on Broadway in hopes of finding mothers with children to fill the center’s ranks. Thanks to her recruiting efforts, the fledgling institution ultimately managed to attract seven toddlers in its kick-off year, including a few children of Barnard professors. In the ensuing years word about the center’s toddler program continued to spread.
Fast-forward several decades, and the center, marking its 40th anniversary this year, has clearly overcome any recruiting challenges. From the initial seven youngsters, the facility has a current enrollment of 50 and a long waiting list of prospective applicants. It has also expanded its offerings to include both morning and afternoon sessions, and expanded the age range, now encompassing toddlers from 1 1/2 to 3 years old. During this time, the center has become a model for many new toddler-care facilities in the United States and abroad and is used by nearly 300 psychology students a year to learn about child development. Under Tovah Klein, who has a PhD in psychology and became director in 1995, the Center for Toddler Development has continued to build on its sterling reputation for providing a rich, nurturing learning environment for toddlers while also doing first-rate research on early-childhood development and play as well as on parenting.
Additionally, its popularity with local parents, including high-profile New Yorkers such as actress Sarah Jessica Parker and journalists Juju Chang and Maria Hinojosa ’84, has continued to grow. “I was really grateful for the experience,” says Parker, the mother of three center alumni, who believes the tools she picked up from the staff on how to communicate with her children and establish routines have been invaluable. “We’ve used those tools every day as parents,” she says. She thought so highly of the center that she also recommended it to her brother and sister, both of whom sent their children there.