How Bentonville invests in early learning

  • June 13, 2019
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   early-learning
Helen Walton Children's Enrichment Center
I had the great pleasure to visit Bentonville, Ark., for the grand opening of the Helen Walton Children’s Enrichment Center, which is a beautiful new campus dedicated to the education of kids ages birth to 4.

The center itself has been in Bentonville, for more than 30 years, but the team there recently was able to fundraise to build this fantastic, $16 million space to nurture and develop children and their families. 

It is built with an eye toward making sure that the environment that young children are in for 8-10 hours a day is as healthful and beautiful as possible. They eliminated six major classes of chemicals in the construction and furnishing of the center. Every plaything is made of natural materials -- no plastic toys are on site. From the drywall to the paint to carpet and the crib  mattresses, the space seeks to minimize the presence of chemicals. 

The entrance of every classroom is designed like the front of a house, and each house features a tree native to Northwest Arkansas. Every classroom has an enclosed porch so that children can play outside even on rainy days. Every porch opens to an amazing outside play space made with natural play materials. The signage outside doors is in English, Spanish and Hindi. The kitchen has a partial glass wall so that children can see how food is made. There is a coat rack of animal shaped backpacks with “fun kits”in them for families to take home, enjoy and return.

The folks at the Helen Walton Center are kindred spirits for the Studer Community Institute. They are deeply invested and have done a lot of research about the importance of a quality early learning experience, and the impact it can have in a child's life. They have been dedicated for many years to improving that experience for the children in Northwest Arkansas, and while they are focused on the education experience, they were really eager to learn from us about how we have focused on bringing parents into the fold from the hospital and birth forward. 
Our projects in the hospital and with parents directly out reaching it's, it's a nice layering, if you can bring those two worlds together. 

There were couple things that I really loved when I was there.

One is the way the Crystal Bridges Art Museum has created a program for parents and babies. CB Babies is for kiddos between 9 and 15 months of age and their parents. These monthly sessions where we're moms and babies are encouraged to go through the museum with a trained museum staffer. They lead moms and babies together through the museum's exhibits, looking at pieces of art that feature things — based on research — that babies and young children respond to. There are four kind of categories of visual stimuli that really spark babies and their minds: Big, close up faces, big eyes, high contrast pieces of art using bright colors, and use of shapes.

The team there have really thoughtfully designed a whole curriculum, aimed at stimulating babies visually through art, not just to build a love of art itself from an early age but to also help parents learn how to make the most of that interaction, about how they can incorporate it into their daily life. I thought that was really fascinating. That's awesome. 

The other is the Scott Family Amazeum, a museum fully dedicated to maximizing play-based experiences for the healthy development of a child. They offer exhibits that rotate, programs, camps, special events and more built around STEAM experiences — science, technology, engineering, art and math. But just that terms feels too small for what the Amazeum offers.

Rooted in reflecting its community in exhibits, this place gives children space to explore, climb, play pretend, and build their minds. Staffers have backgrounds in early education, occupational and physical therapy and science. They structure exhibits based rigorously in using the science of how child develop to make the best experiences possible. It is truly an amazing place. 

We talked about building a kind of Sister City relationship. We are not the only people who know how important the first three years or four years of a child's life are. We're developing our expertise in a certain area. They are developing their expertise in another area. If we could connect into a web of communities with expertise on this topic and that topic, and this topic are all sharing what we know, learning from each other constantly improving all of our systems, I think that's really exciting, powerful.

It's a big for Pensacola to be at the table.

If we could spread that city by city, little town by little town, we could make made a pretty big network that was all built around supporting our young children. 
I think, as they say in my favorite movie, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.