Child’s play

After 40 years, Chico State’s popular Child Development Lab needs a facelift

TEACHING TOTS The Child Development Lab houses two rats for student play. They are, said Director Cindy Ratekin, among the preschool’s most popular residents. Here, student teacher Katie Linehan and Britta Brownridge, 4, pet Cowboy the rat.

TEACHING TOTS The Child Development Lab houses two rats for student play. They are, said Director Cindy Ratekin, among the preschool’s most popular residents. Here, student teacher Katie Linehan and Britta Brownridge, 4, pet Cowboy the rat.

Be a benefactor: Tickets for Saturday’s benefit dinner are available at Zucchini & Vine or by calling 345-5822.

On the rather sterile first floor of Chico State University’s Modoc Hall, surrounded by linoleum-floored classrooms and messy bulletin boards listing roommate openings, help wanted ads and study group notices, there’s a curious find—a preschool.

And it’s obvious, walking in, that this is not just any preschool. Yes, there are brightly colored boxes of toys and supplies stacked high on top of filing cabinets and desks for teachers tucked into corners and surrounded by more boxes. And there’s a room for naps, cubbyholes for each child and low coat hooks in the entryway. Art projects hang from just about everywhere and scribbled pictures are posted on almost every free space.

Outside, there are jungle gyms and sandboxes and student teachers in aprons milling about, getting things ready for the afternoon session, which will start in less than an hour.

But what makes this preschool different is represented by a room that overlooks the playroom. It’s an observation room where child development students from the university watch the kids through one-way mirrored glass. Each semester, the college students choose one child whose progress they will follow. They write lesson plans specifically tailored to that child, along with analyses of the child’s behavior and development over the months.

The program is, said Child Development Lab Director Cindy Ratekin, a perfect blend of stone-cold research, university classroom and enriching preschool. But after 40 years of operation, its facilities are outdated and, in some cases, don’t work at all. That’s why organizers are hoping to raise $100,000 this month to complete a major remodel.

It doesn’t take long, when talking with Ratekin, to decide that she’s probably perfectly suited to her job. Efficient, warm, effervescent and demonstrative, she describes her program almost maternally. Her office is jam-packed with teaching supplies, pictures, books and memos but somehow manages to seem well organized in spite of itself.

“We just have a real excitement for child development here,” she said. “I could open a day care at my house, and I still don’t think I’d be able to foster the same kind of excitement for the kids that we have here. … It’s the [college] students who make it so fun. They’re just so excited about the kids, and they think they’re so cute. They get so much attention. That makes so much of a difference.”

Whatever it is that makes that difference, it’s working. The lab already has waiting lists for classes that won’t begin until 2006. In fact, Ratekin points out, there are parents whose children were born in June who already have them signed up for preschool at the lab.

“It gets kind of crazy,” Ratekin said. “But it means we’re well-liked, and that’s what we want.”

The center offers a two-year preschool program starting at age 3. Children come two days a week for four hours. The program costs $125 a month. As there are only 22 children in each class, the ratio of teachers to children is especially low—somewhere in the vicinity of one grad student teacher to each three kids. That’s far lower than the state-mandated ratio of one teacher for each 12 kids.

In the 40 years that the lab has been a part of Chico State’s Child Development Program, it has never been remodeled. Looking at the place, that’s pretty apparent—especially in the outdoor play area.

The jungle gyms are really just children’s ladders that have been roped securely together. While there’s a massive sandbox—which takes up a full third of the play yard—there’s little grass for the kids to play on. The yard is separated from the rest of campus and the grounds of Bidwell Mansion (which is just a stone’s throw from Modoc Hall) by a simple chain link fence, along with a few huge cement blocks that have been painted in primary colors. There are three storage sheds that appear to be bulging with well-used toys and supplies.

This is, really, a fun and comfortable play area, but it is, in a word, minimal.

Greg Lavin has a whole new image of what the play yard could look like. He envisions a large grassy area with winding tricycle trails and small hills, custom fencing, landscaping, a painted mural depicting a tree, and updated play equipment.

Lavin, who is director of development for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (which ultimately governs the Child Development Lab), is helping organize the fund-raising effort for the remodel. He’s calling the project “A Window to Their World” and hopes also to update the lab’s aging sound system, install video cameras for remote observation of the lab and buy new playroom toys. In all, the project will cost about $100,000, he said. So far, the fund-raising effort has turned up $40,000 of that—including a pledge from the university, he said.

To that end, the lab is organizing a formal benefit dinner for Saturday, Sept. 22. Set in the new ballroom of the Bell Memorial Union, it will feature a catered dinner and dancing. The Skyliners will provide the music, and there will also be a silent auction, with all proceeds going to benefit the lab. Tickets are $50.

“This is just such a unique place,” he said. “It’s one of the few places on campus where the university really meets the community in the best way.”

Lavin said his own twin children went to preschool at the lab and credited teachers there with picking up on special skills they had early on. They were born in 1987, and he signed them up for preschool that same year.

“We were told that’s how you have to do it,” he said. “There was a joke that it was almost like part of the postpartum instructions to sign up for that preschool.”

These days, he said, there are parents with kids in the program who attended preschool at the lab themselves. “We’re becoming multi-generational now,” he said.

It’s something that Ratekin said she’s proud of, although she noted that many of those parents have pointed out that the facility still looks now exactly like it did back when they were toddlers.

“It’s kind of funny that it looks so much like it did back in the ‘60s," Ratekin said. "But we would like to spruce it up a little and make it newer for the kids."