Serious About Play

After four decades, the Barnard Toddler Center plans the next phase of its groundbreaking work on child development

By Ayana Byrd ’95

An unexpected sound bubbles out from the fourth floor of Milbank Hall, spilling from a small classroom where groundbreaking research is taking place. Tiny peals of laughter echo through the tony marble halls of Barnard’s oldest building as its youngest students gather for snack time. For over 40 years, the Center for Toddler Development — the Toddler Center, for short — has occupied space on the fourth floor of Milbank Hall. Inside its doors, researchers are changing how the world understands very young children and how Barnard gives back to its community. Now, as the Center anticipates what might be its biggest change since opening in 1973 — a proposed relocation to a larger, improved space (also in Milbank Hall) — it continues to serve a trio of important functions: teaching undergrads; researching young children’s critical developmental changes; and working with educators and parents around the world to help them better understand how the smallest among us grow into people well prepared for a changing world.

“The Toddler Development Center at Barnard College is known far and wide as a model for how to learn from, play with, and support the development of 2-year-olds,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an early childhood development expert in the psychology department at Temple University in Philadelphia. The Center’s world-renowned director, Tovah Klein, gets it, according to Hirsh-Pasek. “She deftly takes the latest research and lets it come alive for the children in her charge. I have been working with babies and toddlers for my whole career, and each time I visit the Center, I walk out with new insights.”

In that regard she is not alone. Says actor Sarah Jessica Parker, whose children attended the Center, “It was an amazing experience, especially for a first-time parent. It’s the first time you’re really engaging with people who have spent a huge amount of time studying children and early education and separation. What I got out of it was — on my best days as a parent — is tools: ‘How do I want to talk to my child? How do I want to be of comfort? How do I want to be a disciplinarian? How do I want to be an authority? How do I want to shape my child? And when do I want to lay off and let them shape themselves?’”

How Children Learn Best

Two days a week, 2¼ hours a day, children ages 19 to 34 months gather with six teachers in the Center’s 700-square-foot playroom. It is equipped with everything you’d expect in a toddler space, from play kitchens to blocks to an art station.

There is an intentional order here — toys and furniture start each day in the same place, allowing the children the opportunity to feel ownership over a part of the world in which they know where everything can be found. If you give toddlers an environment where they can figure out life, the Toddler Center emphasizes, you help create a foundation that will enable them to become confident toddlers who can become confident adults.

At the Center, the children are given free rein to do what toddlers do naturally: explore the world around them. Though some nursery schools and day care programs focus much of their efforts on “pre-academics” — preparing for reading, writing, and learning additional languages — the Toddler Center continues its embrace of play. “The idea that toddlers spend their days playing says this must be a really important developmental mechanism for them,” observes Klein, whom Good Morning America once called “the toddler whisperer.”

Though supervised by professional teachers and student assistants, the children are mostly free to decide how they want to play and with whom. The session closes with circle time between teachers and parents/caregivers to review what children did that day, followed by a debrief with undergrads after the children leave. The Center adopted its philosophy from the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who believed children learn best when they can explore their environments free of adult intervention.

In Milbank 402, play is seen as a critical tool for emotional expression, exploration, and regulation. “If this is how they figure out the world, what is it that they’re doing?” Klein asks. She wrote the 2014 book How Toddlers Thrive in order to answer that question, and every day, through observing the toddlers and through research at the Center, she further refines her understanding.

(To learn more about toddlers and what’s going on in their heads, read our Q&A with Tovah Klein on page 18.)

Humble Beginnings

When the Toddler Center opened in 1973, its staff probably couldn’t have imagined that in 2019 the Center’s 50 slots would fill up in an instant and the waiting list would be equally long. Parents whose children have attended include many alumnae, New Yorkers from every borough, and even a few high-profile names, including not only Sarah Jessica Parker but also another New York fixture, Jerry Seinfeld.

Francis Schacter, an assistant psychology professor at the College who specialized in early childhood development, conceived of the Toddler Center as a “low-key play center” affiliated with the Psychology Department. Its purpose was to provide undergrads with a rare and invaluable experience: the opportunity to watch early development theories played out on real children in real time.

But before there could be play or observation, there needed to be toddlers. This wasn’t easy in 1973, when 2-year-olds rarely attended programs like the one Schacter proposed. “It was basically unheard of,” said the Center’s founding teacher, Patricia Henderson Shimm, in a 2013 interview. (Shimm passed away last year.) So she headed outside Barnard’s gates to find mothers walking down Broadway who would sign up their toddlers. The inaugural class had seven children.

What those seven children and their families received under Shimm’s care did not change as the program’s enrollment grew. As she wrote in her 1995 book, Parenting Your Toddler, Shimm’s philosophy centered on three basic themes: following a toddler’s lead with appropriate support; setting reasonable limits so the child feels safe; and helping them understand and articulate their feelings.

“It was wonderful to have support from people like Pat,” says Zuhirah Khaldun ’96, whose two daughters attended the Center. “She was amazing, and so funny. There was such care for our children. You felt like you were getting advice from a professional, but a wise older relative at the same time.”

In the 45 years that Shimm was with the Center, buzz about the program grew. The Center is now considered a model for early childhood programs around the world, and Klein, who joined the Psychology Department as a professor in 1995, is sought after for lectures, conferences, and media interviews.

Theory and Praxis

As its global reputation continues to grow, the Center remains focused on its original mission: providing undergrads with firsthand access to toddlers. Students engage with the Center in one of two ways. All students enrolled in Developmental Psychology Lab and in the Intro to Psych Lab — about 200 undergrads a year — spend time observing the toddlers, coding behavior (categorizing it for research purposes), and building observational studies.

Each year, an additional 16 students, primarily psychology majors, take a two-semester seminar Klein teaches on early development. “The students are reading research and theoretical perspectives, then they’re working one morning a week for the entire year with one group of children,” Klein explains.

This past spring semester, assistant professor of psychology Danielle Sussan ’04 spent time at the Toddler Center with her developmental psych students. Their assignment was to design an observational study in which they measured an observable behavior (like aggression, sharing, or toy preference) as a function of an independent variable (such as birth order, gender, or sibling status). The students then observed toddlers on multiple occasions from behind the Center’s one-way mirror to record data on their assigned toddler. “It was so amazing,” Sussan says, “to have a discussion in class about a theory of child development and then walk right down the hall and see what we just talked about in action.”

Klein considers these classes an exchange of knowledge. The students get a firsthand look at early childhood development while the Center staff gains something equally valuable. “It’s [the students’] new eyes,” says Klein. “They might be naive eyes, but they’re smart naive eyes — and just an infusion of energy that’s constantly pushing us to rethink what we’re doing.”

Toddler Center

Processing Through Play

The simple idea of “play” and how it helps children develop is a deceptively rich vein of knowledge to mine. Klein and Hannah Dunn ’17, who served as the Center’s research coordinator before leaving in July for a doctoral program in psychology, recently completed a study that explores how children employ play to process separation, using “the leaving game.” “The child plays the ‘leaver,’ pretending to leave the teacher,” explains Dunn. “ ‘Bye, I’m going to the grocery store!’ or ‘I’m going to the office!’ they may say, while the teacher pretends they are being left: ‘See you later!’ The child moves back and forth, reuniting with the teacher and then moving away again. The importance is that children can control the terms of leaving through play. And through a reversal of roles, the child can process what it means to be left when their parent goes to work or drops them off at school.” Klein and Dunn found that this type of play encourages children to experience autonomy and power, as well as the understanding that they can move away, return, and not be alone.

Columbia psychology professor Nim Tottenham ’96, who studied with Klein as an undergrad (and was her first student), also focuses on how toddlers play. Tottenham heads the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab, which has been a research partner of the Center for the past six years. Her newest study with the Toddler Center is on toddler eavesdropping. In it, teachers showed children two different toys that made noises, and while one adult played with one of the toys, another adult expressed great annoyance at that first adult. The children were then asked which toy they wanted. “They quickly learn to avoid the toy that annoyed the other adult, even though they themselves didn’t experience any negative repercussions,” explains Tottenham.

“It’s testing their learning and their memory, but for things that they themselves haven’t experienced but that they’ve heard adults experiencing,” she says. “We commonly think of toddlers as not very emotionally regulated,” meaning they can and will go from perfectly calm to full meltdown in seconds. But, says Tottenham, “clearly they’re at the stage where they’re beginning to learn how to [regulate those emotions] — learning, in this case, how to avoid difficult stimuli. And so we’re interested in designing some experiments to get a better sense of how this learning occurs.”

The Center demonstrated the impact of new technologies in an April 2013 report by ABC News’ Nightline on iPads and smartphones, which have increasingly made their way into tiny hands. As cameras rolled behind the one-way mirror, researchers conducted an experiment in the classroom with tablets to test toddler “distractability.” Klein observed that children’s vocabulary and socializing improved when the tech was taken away and surmised that a reliance on devices could make it harder for children to learn the skills to self-soothe.

Reaching Out

The fruits of the Center’s research are shared first and foremost with parents, who can then implement strategies such as limiting screen time to help toddlers develop into confident and capable children. (Parents and caregivers are invited each day to observe their children from behind the one-way mirror and take part in discussions with the associate director as they learn to become more adept at being parents.) While the Center’s impact begins with its young charges, its reach doesn’t end there. Klein’s influence is felt in her mentoring of students, serving as a senior thesis adviser and helping guide them through applications to graduate school. “I see my role as not just teaching about early development,” she says, “but helping a student figure out what it is that they enjoy doing. What kind of questions are interesting to them, what kind of career path might work?”

Sabrina Huda ’02 worked directly with Klein when Huda was Center coordinator and an assistant teacher for four years after graduation. During that time, she was also enrolled at Teachers College in a master’s program in children’s education. “Being in the [playroom] opened my eyes to what toddlerhood looks like, really looking at [toddlers] as these amazing human beings growing and learning,” she says.

Huda is now a project director for Sesame Workshop, the global nonprofit behind Sesame Street. In her work creating and implementing the organization’s social impact initiatives, she holds to the Center’s philosophy, which, she says, is “very much hands off, let the children discover on their own. The Toddler Center emphasizes how every child should be treated, and I really want to bring this back to communities that do not have these resources.”

There’s more, too. As one of the world’s leading experts on the powerful implications of play, Klein is able to fulfill what she sees as the third mission of the Center, spreading the Toddler Center’s expertise to communities far and near. This spring, she participated in the 1st International True Play Conference: Global Conversations on the Future of Early Learning, in Anji, China, where she discussed how children’s mental health can be shaped by how they play and how adults support them.

This summer, she headed to Istanbul to contribute to an initiative to make cities more child friendly. She also works with Ubuntu Pathways in South Africa, helping the nonprofit organization develop a play-based early childhood program in a township in the country’s Eastern Cape. “Klein’s expertise is derived from a devoted study of how children actually learn, as opposed to how adults think about education,” says Jana Zindell, Ubuntu Pathways’ chief strategy officer. “She is generous with her knowledge, and that generosity allows other institutions, like Ubuntu, to thrive.”

Closer to home, Klein has worked on behalf of the Toddler Center with the Bronx’s Hunts Point Alliance for Children to build the group’s early childhood program. “It’s a way to take this incredible developmental knowledge that we have here at Barnard and take it literally into our backyard,” she says. Klein also recently advised the Bronx’s JCCA foster care agency on how to transform what was a barren room into a developmentally based play space. The agency says “it’s changed everything about how the parents and kids interact,” reports Klein. “These are mothers, primarily, who want to get their children back [from foster care], and they’re doing visits there in this beautiful space. The room feels welcoming and warm, like a home. And so the children feel relaxed and freer to play. The mothers, as a result, can be with their children in a more loving environment, which supports their ability to relate positively to their children,” Klein explains.

“Their focus on cultivating strong connections between caregivers and toddlers and studying those connections is hugely beneficial to the field of early childhood development,” says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., who participated as an undergraduate in a formative summer internship with Klein and now serves as National Director of HealthySteps, a pediatric primary care program offered by Zero to Three, an early childhood development nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “Their contributions to the evidence base stand to benefit all young children.”

A New Home?

Despite the wide reach of the Center’s research and staff expertise, the Toddler Center has spent most of its 46 years in the Barnard community flying under the radar of those who don’t frequent the top floor of Milbank. That may all be about to change. The Center is hoping to secure enough funding to relocate to the first floor. The reasons are both practical — easier stroller access — and research based. The new space will be designed with upgrades, including technology to better record children, an improved observation area, a parents’ room, and state-of-the-art research rooms that will facilitate collaborations with more investigators. Klein says that the Center is considering accepting 3- and 4-year-olds so that researchers can study children of these ages as well. The College’s current fundraising campaign for the Center is to support the work that is happening now as well as the costs associated with the proposed relocation.

Klein is exhilarated about the possibilities that a new space could bring to their work and to the lives of the children who play and are studied at the Toddler Center. She believes that wherever they are at Barnard, the Center will continue to thrive. “There’s always research going on, whether it’s research that I’m doing or another Barnard or Columbia researcher,” she says. “Could we still do this philosophy somewhere else? Yes, and certainly lots of our students or people who learn here take this with them, and that’s the goal. But it wouldn’t be this place. It would be a lovely early childhood program in the community. The Toddler Center,” she says, “is something beyond that.”

Ayana Byrd is an author and journalist based in Brooklyn.

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Barnard’s Big Picture

Developmental psychology is thriving at Barnard, not only at the Toddler Center but also in the classrooms and laboratories of psychology professors Koleen McCrink and Ann Senghas, as well as through President Sian Leah Beilock’s research.

McCrink studies the development of children’s mathematical thinking and the impacts adults can have on it, while Senghas investigates the fundamentals of language acquisition in children and the ways children acquire, develop, and transmit the languages in which they communicate.

President Beilock explores child and adolescent development as well, with recently published research on interventions that help low-income high school students control their test-taking anxiety and improve test performance. “Your anxiety can affect how you demonstrate what you know when it matters most,” Beilock explains.

Both McCrink and Senghas teach developmental psychology courses in which learning how to generate and investigate research questions plays a central role. “Students design experiments and carry them out,” Senghas explains. “They make observations. They do studies and write them up.” The professors’ efforts teach the scientific method and prepare students to conduct the kind of research undertaken by professional psychologists.  

Indeed, developmental psychology at Barnard is no mere academic exercise but instead answers some of the most critical questions of our time, Senghas says: “How do kids learn and remember information? How do we want to parent? How do we teach people to be kind?”

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Room to Grow

When Pat Shimm joined the Toddler Center as a founding teacher in 1973, Sesame Street was about the same age as her seven students. The idea of focused programming founded in developmental psychology, early childhood education, and cultural diversity was radical but ready to grow — much like the Toddler Center, which now serves 52 toddlers per year in a world-renowned, play-based program where faculty and students alike research this critical phase. Classes are capped at 13 and inclusive with children from a diverse range of backgrounds and needs. Today, over one-third of families receive a tuition discount, so that the Center remains accessible regardless of income. 

As it approaches its sixth decade, the Center is looking to grow through a new kind of development: the building of state-of-the-art research and classroom facilities. The Patricia Shimm Fund for Childhood Development will honor the late associate director’s memory and recognize her years of dedication and innumerable contributions by supporting scholarships and vital funding for research, students, and teachers. Barnard is also working to establish an endowed fund in her name, the Patricia Shimm Parenting Program Fund, as well as individual naming opportunities, to support the continued work of the Center and its revitalization in Milbank Hall.

“With these funds in place, the Toddler Center will build on its outstanding services and reputation, while expanding its impact with research in the foundational emotional, social, and cognitive growth of children in their earliest years,” said Lisa Yeh, Barnard’s vice president of development. It’s a logical next step in the Toddler Center’s own healthy development.