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Longmont Local: The Aspen Center takes a different approach to early education

Aspen Center encourages children to connect with their community.

At the Aspen Center for Child Development, early education isn’t about shaping future citizens. It focuses on guiding children to be participating citizens today, and teaching them how to learn not what to learn.

The early education setting serves ages six weeks to six years, and sits in downtown Longmont. It was founded in 1989 as a OUR Child Care Center, a branch of the OUR Center, a social services nonprofit that’s been serving Longmont since 1986. Soon after, it became a licensed preschool and known as the Aspen Center.

Tuition for the Aspen Center accommodates different family incomes. Some families pay full tuition — which varies for different age groups — but sliding scale tuition is also offered. Families receiving benefits from the Child Care Assistance Program are also enrolled at the Aspen Center. About 40% of families receive financial assistance, according to Aspen Center Director Elizabeth Fannon.

“I'm really proud that we're able to be able to meet the needs of families,” Fannon said. “We're able to enroll families not just based on income, because that's a part of our mission is to support all families who want and deserve early care and education for their young child. And it's a right to have high quality education.”

The Aspen Center prides itself on receiving its five-star rating in 2019 through Colorado Shines — Colorado's quality rating and improvement system for evaluating early childcare and education programs.

Some of the ways the Aspen Center maintains its high rating is through its many play-based programs. The preschool incorporates the natural world into its education. The playground is built from wood with the natural bark still attached. 

The Aspen Center incorporates guidelines from the Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) program, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Initiative to promote nature in the classroom. Pine cones and other found objects are collected on walks and brought back inside.

Fannon said the Aspen Center likes to use different natural objects as open ended learning devices. An acorn could be used for arts and crafts. It could also be incorporated into the Aspen Center’s STEAM program, and rolled down a ramp to study physics.

Children learn how to grow fruits and vegetables in their playground garden through Aspen Center’s involvement with the Boulder County Farm to Early Care and Education Program. In addition to growing food, the preschool receives a fresh locally-grown produce box weekly. 

Before the pandemic, Fannon said they taught cooking and nutrition with the fruits and veggies. But now, they use the produce for different educational purposes including drawing still life. Children are also allowed to select the items they want to try, and they get to take the produce home to cook with their families. It’s all about letting children be a part of the decisions made in their lives, Fannon said.

“Our image of the child is very strong and we view them as a current citizen, not a future citizen, and a participant in the world,” Fannon said. “And so, considering that children are very competent, and children are very capable, we really consider how might we offer opportunities to children that demonstrates that we respect them and value them as citizens.”

Fannon added that Aspen Center encourages children to connect with their community. With the school being on Fifth Avenue right off of Main Street, teachers take the kids on walks throughout town and the nearby neighborhoods.

The preschool views the environment as another teacher. On their walks, they will stop so the children can draw their surroundings. Some neighbors have pigs and other animals, so they stop to look at them.

The Aspen Center focuses on low teacher to children rations so children can build relationships with their caretakers and peers, Fannon said. The groups are smaller the younger the child is, she added, and their ratio for caretakers to infants is one to three.

Fannon said the Aspen Center is looking to hire educators for lead, assistant and substitute teacher positions. They have a partnership with the University of Colorado Denver to further employees’ education and receive their master’s degree in a year. The Aspen Center also partners with the St. Vrain Valley district, and teachers have been awarded grants in the past to take early childhood courses at CU Denver. Fannon said interested parties must be Early Childhood Teacher(ECT) certified and can send in their applications to elizabeth@ourcenter.org.

Lessons are altered to be age appropriate and accommodate children’s learning development pace. But Fannon wants every child that comes through the preschool to know there’s more than one way to think. When children age out of the Aspen Center, Fannon hopes they leave with confidence in their abilities to learn and see themselves as thinkers. 

“What's most important is that children leave the Aspen Center feeling as if, or understanding, or having the confidence that they are a learner, and that they are able to participate in a community and collaborate with others,” Fannon said. “That they just have this disposition of I'm a learner. I'm a thinker, because maybe I don't know the answer to the question, but I can find the answer to the question.”