Please excuse the rambunctious youngsters of MTSU’s Ann Campbell Early Learning Center for a little while if they have a hard time remembering how to take turns getting out the door to play.
They’ve been watching through the windows of the North Baird Lane facility for nearly a year while designers, construction crews, landscapers and their teachers turned their old playground into a natural playscape accessible to each of the preschoolers.
The new inclusive playground, which now stretches over into what was part of the center’s parking lot, officially opened Friday, Aug. 4, with a special ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome family, friends, donors and other guests to join the fun.
“It’s been so exciting to see their little faces light up and to see the excitement on their faces,” says center director Christy Davis. “They’d be standing at the window, leaning over and pointing, talking about what was going on.
“We also were fortunate enough to work with the Tennessee Agriculture in the Classroom program, and we partnered with ‘Cowboy Dan’ (Harrell), who showed us how to plant in our new garden boxes while we were building. We’re going to have an opportunity to eat food that we grow right here at ACE. We’re growing cherry tomatoes, okra, corn, pole beans, green peppers, chives, squash and basil.”
The fun will be year-round with those planting boxes, grassy play areas, slides, a custom playhouse, a wooden “theater” complete with child-sized stump seating, a corrugated tunnel under a hill with willow-arbor entrances, musical instruments, places to paint, a water table, chalkboard frames along the fence to decorate, and even a kid-sized vehicular tribute to the traffic roundabouts — and parking spots — across campus.
“You’re so overwhelmed and impressed by it that you hardly know where to look first,” parents Kyle and Katie Mullicane say. Their daughter, almost-4-year-old Harper, has been a student at the ACE Center since she was about 18 months old.
“I think it’s safe to say that it’s exceeded everyone’s expectations, greatly exceeded them,” Kyle Mullicane adds. “That they were just given a blank canvas for their imagination and executed it like that — it’s incredible. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a playground like it anywhere, much less in a program for kids that age.”
MTSU’s ACE Learning Center serves children from age 13 months to kindergarten, allowing them to play together and learn from each other.
Teachers at the center plan activities that help each child, with and without developmental delays, learn good communication, social, cognitive and motor skills.
Similarly inclusive preschools are scattered across the state today, but MTSU’s was the first in 1983 — three years before federal law required services for very young children with developmental delays — thanks to founder and education professor Ann Campbell.
She created what was then called “Project Help” to provide a classroom environment for preschool children with special needs and a training ground for students majoring in early childhood education.
There are a handful of publicly accessible and inclusive playgrounds in Tennessee, but the closest are Clarksville’s Heritage Park, Cookeville’s Heart of the City Playground and the Roll Around the Park playground in White House. Davis and project manager/ACE parent Amanda Witt visited one for ideas and came back with plenty to try, and modify, at the MTSU site.
“When I give parent tours, one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘How long do they stay outside?’ And I say ‘Well, it’s going to be twofold. Right now, we don’t stay outside as long. It’s really up to the teachers because we’ve been sharing this one playground,’” Davis says.
“However! When we are outside with this new playscape, the sky’s the limit. And I want all my teachers to stay out there and enjoy it. As long as all those babies are having fun, it’s all about having fun. Enjoy. Live it up. We know that they’re learning and they’re growing when they’re having fun.”
Kyle Mullicane admits that the new playground opening will be a bit bittersweet for Harper, since she’s moving up into the “Yellow Room” for 4-year-olds at the center’s Fairview Building satellite facility across campus and will only be able to visit on Fridays with her friends.
“Just putting her in this environment (at the ACE Center) and seeing her growth, the way she interacts with the world, it’s been changing in leaps and bounds,” he says. “Even with very young children, where you don’t realize how much they understand and learn because they can’t yet tell you, even the 14-month-olds in there are going to benefit from all of it, including the playground.
“That’s what’s so great about early childhood education: they don’t know they’re learning. They’re just learning every moment of their existence.”
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)