The Center for Toddler Development, nestled on the fourth floor of Milbank behind a windowless blue door, may be one of Barnard’s best-kept secrets. I’ve been attending a class held just a floor away since January and have never seen so much as an abandoned stroller or sippy cup, let alone an actual squalling child. So when I heard about the Center for Toddler Development for the first time—or, as it was called by my editor at The Eye, the “Barnard Baby Room”—I couldn’t hide my surprise.
“Center for Toddler Development” is a much more accurate name than “Baby Room.” The children are not babies—though they do a lot of screaming, they also walk and talk. “We only do toddlers,” head teacher Tricia Hanley says. She explained to me that there are four classes, three of which enroll students between the ages of nineteen and twenty-nine months. The fourth takes students who are turning three but are too young to go into kindergarten programs elsewhere.
When current associate director Patricia Shimm founded the Center for Toddler Development forty years ago, she stood out on Broadway asking parents and children who passed if they would like to enroll. Today, news of the Center spreads through the grapevine, and admission is highly competitive. “We don’t really do any advertising,” Hanley says. “We only have one classroom. There’s a limited number of spots [twelve for each class], so there’s high demand for those spots.” This may have something to do with the financial assistance the program is able to give parents. Forty percent of the families receive financial aid, paying as little as $500 a year, or $40 a month. The full tuition is $8,500, roughly half of what it is at Thompkins Hall— a Columbia-affiliated nursery school.
For some, the idea of a group of children being observed as if under a microscope may be disconcerting. Indeed, the nursery itself struck me as a little strange when I visited. On the surface, it looks like any other day care in the city in almost every way. In the middle of the room is a toy boat big enough for a child to clamber into. The cabinets, which line the room, are all made of the same warm, yellowish wood. The chairs are miniature, and the toys range from trucks to telephones to maracas tiny enough for a toddler’s fist. The only thing that sets the Center apart from any other nursery is the massive two-way mirror, which spans almost the entirety of one wall.
At first, I admit, I was slightly unsettled. I found it difficult to keep from associating these mirrors with the hard-boiled criminals on crime dramas who stare through them into the eyes of the equally stoic detectives. My mind kept flashing back to that scene from The Truman Show where Truman draws an alien around his face in the mirror, completely ignorant of the camera filming him from behind it. These images, paired with the fact that the kids are the subjects of scientific research, spooked me a bit.
My fears of some sort of creepy sci-fi environment were, however, completely unfounded. Although it is a research center, the Center is also focused on supporting the children’s development as well as their relationships with each other, their teachers, and their parents. Every part of the children’s day is structured to support them, to make them feel safe, and to ease separation anxiety.
Each day is structured the same way: free play, cleanup, snack, story time, playtime again (including a slide and a sand table), cleanup, then circle time with the parents. Hanley explained that the consistency of this routine gives the children something to depend on in order to make them as comfortable as possible with their surroundings and peers.
During the school day, parents are required to leave even the observation room. This way, the parents, too, experience and learn to deal with the separation. “We have circle time where the parents and the children reunite,” Hanley says. “That’s our way of giving the children back to the parents and giving them some closure, and then they go home.”
I was most struck by how encouraging the Center was towards its toddlers in its reluctance to reprimand them. “The environment of the Toddler Center is steeped in a deep understanding of toddler development, including the most recent studies,” says Dr. Tovah Klein, the Center’s director. “The focus is on supporting their emotional and social development—the basis of development at this age and as they continue to develop throughout childhood.”
I got to see this “deep understanding” in action when I had the chance to observe the children through the glass. As I watched the children play with each other, their toys, and their teachers, one child started to throw his toys. The teachers did not yell at him or put him in the corner. Rather, they offered him buckets, telling him to aim his toys into the bucket instead, which, after a moment, he did.
As Hanley, who sat with me in the observation room, explained, it was natural for a young child to throw his toys—being told off would not help him learn. “I think that they make an effort to have the child express themselves but focus on doing so in a constructive manner,” says Barnard College senior and Introduction to Psychology teaching assistant Sydney Brinson.
The research performed at the Center largely consists of observational studies. “The studies are either part of the classroom environment, for example, when we videotape children playing naturally in this setting and can look at what toddler play is about, what conflict looks like at this age, how peers begin to make overtures to each other,” Dr. Klein says. In other cases, the children may be moved to another room, where a study is conducted by a teacher and research assistant—but only if they agree. “If a child does not want to participate, that is fine, and we would not force them,” Dr. Klein says. “We just ask again another day.”
Among the more influential studies conducted at the Center are investigations into toddler play, toddler sleeping patterns, parent-toddler socialization, and early toddler imitation, as well as a study conducted directly after 9/11 involving children and parents who lived in downtown Manhattan and had experienced the trauma firsthand.
But, most importantly, the Center values the toddlers’ comfort and safety above all else. No one participates in anything unwillingly. The words “safe space” are not taken lightly at the Center. The teachers and researchers intend to create an environment that is as comfortable and stable for the children as possible, all the while studying exactly what happens during what is arguably the most important period of a child’s development.