Photographs by Mark Mahaney

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 center up 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 students who 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 1½ 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.

Based on the thinking of giants in education and child development such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget, early-childhood education experts have long maintained that children should be active participants in the learning process. Over the years, the center has strived to put that idea into practice. Rather than setting up a highly structured program of activities and lessons, it follows the lead of the learner, notes Klein, and gives children much wider latitude to pick the sorts of toys or activities that they’re most drawn to, from playing with a train set or in a pretend kitchen, to painting pictures or just browsing through a book. “It’s not about direct teaching,” says Klein. “The whole idea is to let children explore and act on their own choices and desires.” 

“Children are not just empty vessels—they’re discoverers and explorers,” agrees Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an expert in early childhood development at Temple University in Philadelphia, who adds that the Toddler Center has been a leader in showing how best to inspire curiosity about the world and help kids build an early passion for learning. “It really epitomizes discovery learning,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “The center shows how to do it right, and do it best.” 

Having spent nearly two decades working closely with these children and doing research on this key developmental stage, Klein can attest to the fact that 2 and 3 are challenging ages, since they are the ones at which children are just beginning the process of separating from parents and developing a sense of their own independence. Part of the center’s mission is to make that transition a little easier, and help young children develop a sound emotional base. “In order for a child to separate [from his or her parents] in a healthy way you have to build trust first,” says Klein. One of the center’s main concerns is to reassure the children that mommy or daddy will always come back, ideas based in attachment theory, originated by psychology theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.

The staff also takes a compassionate view of what can often be mercurial behavior. “Toddlers are very emotional creatures,” adds Klein, noting that they can be filled with joy one minute and sad or angry the next and “do all kinds of things that are baffling to adults. . . . We try to be accepting of who they are and where they are,” she says. “It’s very much about moving with whatever’s going on for that individual at that moment.” 

If a child is throwing things, a center staffer will provide a bucket and tell him or her to throw the object in it. Or if one child grabs another’s toy, the staff will validate how badly the child wanted that toy, only later suggesting gently that child give it back when he or she is done. They’ll also tell children whose toys are being targeted that it’s okay to hold on tightly and not give their playthings up. “We put a lot of emphasis on [sensitively] dealing with emotions,” says Shimm, who now serves as the center’s associate director. “We don’t want to humiliate the bully or the wimp.” 

Patricia Hanley, one of two head teachers, says the center’s ability to give children individualized attention definitely sets it apart. “We’re really able to focus on knowing who each child is,” she says and notes that thanks to a steady supply of Barnard and Columbia student teachers, they are able to maintain a ratio of roughly one adult for every two toddlers. “We couldn’t have this program without students,” adds Hanley, a Columbia alumna who was a student at the center during the 1990-1991 academic year. She enjoyed the experience so much that she not only decided to pursue a career in early-childhood development, she also enrolled her daughter, Megan Ettinger, there. “It was a natural thing. It didn’t occur to me that there was any other option,” she says. And, her daughter is now a sophomore at Barnard majoring in neuroscience. 

Hanley and other staffers are proud of the center’s diverse student mix, which includes special-needs children as well as those of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds. To help maintain that mix, about one-third of families are on a sliding-scale tuition plan based on their income, with some paying as little as $25 per month, according to Klein.

Other parents of center students and alumni appreciate that diversity, along with the compassionate approach to childcare, not to mention the valuable tips they’ve learned for navigating the ups and downs of parenting toddlers. “Sometimes it’s hard to get through the day when your toddler has a different agenda,” says Emily Yang ’94, a mother of three center alumni, who still attends a weekly center support group for parents. “I really have found that the advice and insight I’ve gotten has given me an opportunity to enjoy my children,” affirms Yang. “Just being able to understand what was going on helped my toddlers get through [the terrible-twos] and helped me get through [them] too.” 

“It’s very easy for parents to forget that [their toddlers] are not just little adults,” agrees parent Elizabeth Hines, adding that “it was wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off the staff” and tap into their huge store of knowledge about raising toddlers. Hines is not only the mother of a center alumna, she herself attended when she was a child in 1976, and though she doesn’t remember being there, she recalls her mother talking about what a great first learning experience it was. In that sense, Hines says, the center hasn’t changed. “It’s maintained its core of taking good, loving care of its students,” says Hines. “I truly felt my daughter was in expert hands.” 

Looking ahead, Klein notes that the Toddler Center has plans on the drawing board for a new state-of-the-art research and observation facility, and will soon be launching a major 40th-anniversary fundraising campaign for that project as well as for a new endowment. In the meantime, she’s also finishing up a new book on parenting toddlers that will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.