Early Childhood Education

Laboratory Schools


The earliest American laboratory schools, frequently referred to as child development laboratories (CDLs), started to appear in the late 1800s, and were initially sites that reflected best practices in public schools. Today, most child development laboratories are on college and university campuses and they provide settings for research, teacher education, and early care and education for young children.

In 1883, Colonel Francis Wayland Parker, superintendent of schools in Quincy, Massachusetts, became principal of the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, and later opened the Francis W. Parker School in 1901. At his “practice school,” visiting teachers and even persons outside the teaching profession could observe his ideas in operation. His published Course of Study, which included descriptions of materials, devices, and methods, had wide circulation and affected the classroom practices of hundreds of public school teachers.

In 1894, John Dewey joined the University of Chicago as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy. His “Dewey School” opened in January 1896 with about twelve students aged six to nine years of age, two teachers, and an instructor who was listed as “in charge of manual training.” His school was a laboratory, in the sense of an experimental place where one’s theory of education could be put into practice, tested, and scientifically evaluated.

The concept of practice, experimentation, and research became integrally linked to the first wave of laboratory schools at Columbia University and Bank Street College. Campus nursery schools made their appearance in the early 1920s, when several universities, colleges, and research centers established them as experimental schools for training very young children. Still other laboratory schools began as settings where teachers could be trained to work with young children— one of the first was the Ruggles Street Nursery School and Training Center established in Boston in 1922.

By 1930 laboratory nursery schools had been established at several institutions of higher education including Iowa State, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Wellesley College, Vassar, and the University of New Hampshire. Over the next two decades, child development laboratories became a popular method of training university students about young children (Osborn, 1991). The Ruggles Street Nursery School eventually became a department of child development at Tufts University with its own laboratory school, renamed the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School.

Throughout this period, child development laboratory schools were identified by a particular constellation of purposes. The first was to provide a high-quality early childhood program to young children and their families, and many campus programs are considered exemplary models, although difficult to replicate in “real world” settings. As such, they provided an important university and public service to their communities. CDLs also served important campus instructional needs, serving as a location to introduce students to young children, and to train undergraduates and in some cases graduate students strategies for working effectively with young children. On some campuses, CDLs involved students from many departments interested in observing how children develop. A third purpose has been to provide a location where students can learn how to conduct research involving children and/or their families, and to support faculty research.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some laboratory schools were closed as a result of budget shortfalls and space limitations, but also because there was lack of clarity about the value of the existing models. Many were perceived as “country clubs,” serving primarily white, upper-class university faculty members and administrators, and only available to mothers who could afford to be at home during the day. Often, CDLs served as the only location for a student’s teacher preparation, raising concerns about preparing future teachers for the “real” world. Some questioned the usefulness of research results based on a narrow pool of children utilizing such programs. Finally there was an increasing demand by students, and to a lesser degree by faculty members, for full and also flexible day care. As a result, there was a reduction in campus-based nursery school programs and an increase in full-day programs (McBride, 1996), only some of which also served as laboratory settings.

Today, there are estimated to be over 2100 programs serving young children in all types of college settings, about half of which are CDLs housed in academic departments. At least three issues remain (Bowers, 2000): the cost of (and need of subsidy for) campus-based CDLs, the increasing popularity of early childhood majors to undergraduates, and the possible impact of new technology on training future teachers. These issues are reflected in the considerable variation in the function, administrative unit, and parent population of CDLs. A study of NCCCC members (Thomas, 1995) found that 52 percent described their function as laboratory school and child-care service. A majority (39%) of campus children’s centers were housed in academic departments, with student services (29%) the next most likely administrative unit. Most campus centers enrolled children of students, faculty and staff, and over half (64%) also accepted children from the community-at-large. Campus centers typically enrolled children from infancy (38%) to preschool age (98%), with some offering kindergarten (28%) and before and after school programs (20%).

In spite of the financial pressures (Kalinowski, 2000) and concerns about elitism, future prospects for laboratory schools remain positive. Parents’ interest in high-quality child care, employer interest in attracting and retaining strong, and younger faculty with impending baby boomer retirements, a greater and more sophisticated understanding of resource centered management (RCM), and an increased interest in the value of high-quality programs for teacher training should result in an increase in campus child-care variations, and also an increase in the number of campus CDLs in the coming decade. There will be a growing need to explore new ideas in early childhood education, for example, in translating principles and practices from Reggio Emilia into effective educational experiences and learning environments for U.S. children, preservice teachers, and members of the community. It is essential that laboratory schools return to the cutting edge of innovation and experimentation regarding the design and implementation of exemplary services to children and their families for many reasons, including the political ones of balancing the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act and high stakes testing of children. CDLs were initially programs that demonstrated best practices and served as experimental places where theories could be tested, and innovative approaches to education analyzed and evaluated. They should take on, once again, the mantel of creative, productive, and valuable laboratories.

Three national organizations promote the work of CDLs, including the National Coalition of Campus Children’s Centers (NCCCC), the National Organization of Child Development Laboratory Schools (NOCDLS), and the National Association of Laboratory Schools (NALS). The Council for Child Development Laboratory Administrators (CCDLA) has been an important regional organization in the Northeast.

Further Readings: Bowers, S. (March 2000). Are campus child development laboratories obsolete? College Student Journal. Available online at www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FCR/is_1_34/ai_628394t0; Kalinowski, M. (2000). Child Care. In National Association of College and University Business Officers. College and university business administration. Washington, DC: Author, pp. 20-55; McBride, B. (1996). University-based child development laboratory programs: Emerging issues and challenges. Early Childhood Education Journal 24(1), 17-21; Osborn, D. K. (1991). Early childhood education in historical perspective. 3rd ed. Athens, GA: Education Associates; Thomas, J. (1995). Child care and laboratory schools on campus. Fact Sheet No. 3. Cedar Falls, IA: National Coalition for Campus Child Care. Available online at www.campuschildren.org/pubs/cclab/cclab1.html; University of Chicago (2004-2005). History of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Available online at www.ucls.uchicago.edu/about/history/chapter1.shtml.

Michael Kalinowski and Maria K. E. Lahman