Early learning center to open on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus

Image caption: An architect’s rendering of a classroom in the Homewood Early Learning Center, which is slated to open in fall 2015.


This fall, Johns Hopkins will join the ranks of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford in a way that won't make it into U.S. News & World Report but will change day-to-day life for scores of faculty members and staff.

When the Homewood Early Learning Center opens on the corner of Wyman Park Drive and Remington Avenue in late August or early September, the facility will help meet a long-standing demand for on-campus child care, offering 94 spots in a play-based environment for infants through preschoolers. It also will help create a family-friendly campus culture and a sense of community for Johns Hopkins parents, elements increasingly found across higher education, says Michelle Carlstrom, senior director of the university's Office of Work, Life and Engagement.

"It changes the landscape where we are really going to start to have a community of parents of young children who are going to have an outlet to get together," Carlstrom says. "And it really brings Johns Hopkins into the fold with Ivy League institutions who've had child care centers for a long time. It helps us recruit and retain the best faculty in the world."

The center is the result of a process of assessing needs, feasibility, and costs that dates back to 2003. This examination initially brought about a partnership with the YMCA of Central Maryland on 33rd Street, which gives Johns Hopkins–affiliated families priority for 50 child care spaces. However, because the Y only accepts children age 2 and up, these spaces are underutilized while families struggle to find infant care, Carlstrom says. (The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Early Childhood Center, which opened in September on the Henderson-Hopkins School campus, is an option for Johns Hopkins employees who work on the university's East Baltimore campus.)

A follow-up child care study, begun in 2010, found that the need had only grown. Forty-nine percent of faculty and staff were now between the ages of 25 and 44, and nearby child care providers offered a total of just six spots for infants. In 2012, Carlstrom's office coordinated a work group to develop a plan. The resulting center will be housed for the near term in a prefabricated modular building—an approach that follows the lead of Harvard and MIT—located on the Stony Run parking lot. The work group is committed to developing plans for a long-term home for the center once members have gathered information from its first few years of operation, Carlstrom says.

The center will accept children ages 10 weeks through 5 years and will operate year-round, following the university's closing schedule for holidays and weather, with hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. A bachelor's degree–level teacher will be in every classroom, and staff-to-child ratios will be higher than state requirements. The center will be open to the community but will offer priority to Johns Hopkins faculty and staff, postdocs, and graduate students. Costs will be market rate. Electronic applications are available on the website homewoodelc.org, and notices of admission will begin in February and continue until the center is full, at which time a waiting list will go into effect.

The building, says Carlstrom, will be a "super cool space." National architect D.W. Arthur Associates, which designed modular centers for Harvard, MIT, and Brown, is planning hallways that feel geometric, with alcoves for playing. The preschool room has lofts, and there's a multipurpose room, along with a library and activity kitchen. The large outdoor play area includes age-specific equipment, spaces for gardening, and trike paths.

The question of who would operate the center was a critical one. Carlstrom says that the desire for local, high-quality care led the group to Downtown Baltimore Child Care, which has been offering play-based child care for more than 30 years. DBCC will run the center, while Johns Hopkins will own the facility.

Play-based education means having children play as a means to develop their thinking skills, says Margo Sipes, DBCC director.

"Play generally has a bad reputation. It's considered frivolous. But if you look at the way humankind learns, most of what we've ever learned was through playing around with it," Sipes says. "Children are these marvelous learning machines. They're born ready to learn. The whole world seems to have forgotten that. Children learn to walk and talk without anybody writing a curriculum. All of a sudden, when it comes time to read, we distrust children's capacity for learning."

DBCC gives children lots of experiences and lets them play. Choices help them learn to make decisions. Navigating relationships helps them learn to get along with peers. Making play dough helps them learn the science of mixing and heating. Blocks teach symmetry, gravity, design, and math concepts such as fractions. The principles of play-based learning are backed by child development theorists including Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Maria Montessori.

"The funny thing that happens is that while doing all that play, kids also learn colors, shapes, letters, and some executive function skills," Sipes says.

For more information and to apply for enrollment, go to http://homewoodelc.org.

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