There’s one place in Peculiar where you can do some pretend grocery shopping, take in a puppet show and rock out with a triangle and some music. The catch? To get in, you have to be a student at the Shull Early Learning Center.
The center’s newly opened Imagination Station features a variety of activities aimed at boosting creative play and interest in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math-related ideas for its 158 preschool-aged children.
Funding to start the Imagination Station came from the Ray-Pec Public School Foundation, which awarded STEAM grants across the district. The center received $1,500, as did Ray-Pec Academy and each of the district’s seven elementary schools. Its two middle schools each got a $2,250 grant, and the high school received $3,000.
The building used to be a middle school, and it had a large empty space where the school’s library once was. When the center received the grant money, its building leadership team met to decide how to use the funds. Shull was the only school to create a learning space like this one.
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Teacher Stephanie Berendzen was part of that team and said that having a learning space where kids can make choices and experience cause and effect learning without being directed by a teacher is important.
“The levels of their play … have gone from exploratory to cooperative working with others,” she said.
Mary Shatford, director of early learning at Shull, said they took inspiration from Crown Center’s Kaleidoscope and The Magic House children’s museum in St. Louis when designing the space.
Right now, there’s a grocery store area where children can pretend to shop and role play as cashiers.
“The grocery store area is probably the most popular place in there, because I think so much of it the real life they see. … Any opportunities where they can role-play those adult experiences… they love it,” Berendzen said.
Nearby shelves are stocked with art supplies ranging from paper towel tubes to glitter and more for art projects.
“Anything you can think of we have on the shelves for them to be able to create,” Shatford said. “We believe in recycling here, so we try to recycle as many things as we can, using cereal boxes from home, orange juice containers and milk containers.”
Another corner boasts small musical instruments and a projector where teachers can play music and videos. Recently, a class used it to play their own musical instruments along with recordings of holiday songs.
The Imagination Station also has a small puppet theater, a light table and Lego and chalk walls — and that’s just the beginning. In the future, Shatford hopes to add more activities.
“STEAM at the early childhood level really involves hands-on exploration. They’re using their senses. They’re breaking things apart and putting things back together; they’re making observations, making predictions,” Shatford said. “They’re making sense of what’s all around them. That’s the power of this.”
A lot of skill-building comes with the various games and projects. Drawing on the chalkboard or building on the Lego wall lets kids express themselves creatively, but it also helps them improve their motor skills and build muscles and coordination.
Although teachers are around to help when needed and operate equipment like the projector or a hot glue gun, the activities are mostly student-led.
“We want that collaboration time with the kids. When kids work together, they’re expanding their vocabulary. They’re improving their social skills,” Shatford said.