Children are now housed in an academic building for the first time in the history of MIT.
The Children’s Technology Center, MIT’s newest child care facility, recently opened inside the newly constructed Stata Center–– a 2.8-acre twisting complex of brick, metal, and glass designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry. This landmark building was designed not solely for kids but to bring together for the first time experts in the areas of electrical engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, linguistics and philosophy.
“When the space became available, we were excited about making connections between the kids and adults and about the possibilities of learning happening across generations,” says Kathy Simons, child care manager at MIT’s Center for Work, Family, and Personal Life. “Like the scientists and engineers, kids are masters at creativity, innovation, and hands-on exploration.
“There’s already been remarkable synergy,” she says, adding that experts in the linguistics department have asked to study the children’s language development. And scientists plan to study the cognitive development of the infants.
“When you come to Stata, you just know that this is not a place of business as usual. You feel the excitement. You may not be sure what’s going on, but you just know it’s something wonderful,” says Executive Director Gina Tzizik, who says the plan is to make MIT’s child center a world-class facility.
The center accommodates 75 kids, eight weeks to age 5.
There are computers with brightly colored keyboards and programs designed specifically for kids age 2 and up, who can browse the Internet and email their parents. Also available are digital cameras, so if a child builds a castle with blocks, he can snap a picture, then email it to his Mom or Dad and say, “Look what I just built.”
In most child centers, there’s a dress-up corner. But at Stata, because classrooms are designed in pairs with many shared spaces, it’s a space twice as big, where you can pretend you’re in a whole house, a fire station, or a spaceship. That area spills into a huge space with blocks of every shape and size, including hollow blocks large enough to build structures you can actually go inside.
There’s a large mirrored prism that children can sit in to view endless images; double easels for kids to paint side by side; and water play areas, where children can stand together at sinks just their size to measure, float, or sink objects. There are heated coat racks to dry clothes on rainy days, stairs for toddlers to climb to the diaper-changing tables, and on the playground there’s a recycled rubber tricycle path, so if you fall you won’t get hurt.
FAMILY AND DIVERSITY
“What makes the center unique,” Tzizik says, “is we have families from different states and countries, and 50 percent of the children do not speak English when they arrive. We wanted a center that not only celebrates family but celebrates diversity.
“These parents drop in often because for many, this is their first connection with an American community. Parents eat lunch with us, or stay and talk with other parents.”
The center design invites parent involvement. There are couches, tables, and areas to congregate. The central feature of every classroom is a kitchen with a dishwasher, refrigerator, stove, and microwave, where families can come together to cook and share meals from sushi to tacos to pad thai.
The center’s 20 teachers are also from various cultures and backgrounds. And the diversity of the community is even evident in the toy kitchen, where there are woks, and pretend sushi and fahitas.
The center took five years to plan. Gail Sullivan, who earned an MIT master’s in architecture in 1986, and who has created 20 child care centers, was hired by MIT and Frank Gehry to design the facility.
It was great, she says, because her job was to create joyful places for children, while the job of the Gehry architects was to create joyful spaces for adults. “The entire architecture of the building has a playfulness to it that’s imaginative but also provocative –– a perfect setting for kids,” she says. “We wanted to provoke children to think and to use their imaginations.”
In the true MIT spirit, she says: “The environment says, go out and construct anything you want, explore everything. Anything is possible.”
Simons says that often a child care center is in a church basement, an elementary school, or a storefront. “But this center was designed specifically to support kids and their families. This center is a big step forward in thinking creatively about early childhood education. MIT is supporting these families and teachers at the same level it supports people in our labs.”
The wonderful thing, Tzizik says, “is this center isn’t just an idea. It’s a reality. The environment is so rich. It’s an educator’s dream.”