Learning center shows young children how to take care of the environment Award-winning program teaches 'good citizenship'


"Look at this!" shouts 3-year-old Thomas White of Westminster, holding up a plastic bottle of spring water. "I can 'cycle it."

The word may have too many syllables for 3- and 4-year-old tongues, but the practice of recycling is part of life's lessons at the Main Street Early Learning Center in Westminster.

At the center, earthworms get respect. Trees get hugged. Endangered species are identified on imaginary trips to the rain forest of Indonesia or the African veld.

No expedition is impossible when owner-director Barbara Weber and her young friends climb into the playhouse airplane and take flight with their imaginations.

Weber's work teaching young children about the environment at the center, in the first block of East Main St., recently won the Carroll County Environmental Affairs Advisory Board's 1998 Environmental Awareness Award.

"Learning about environmental protection is as integrated into [the center's] curriculum as learning the alphabet," parent Karen Blandford of Sykesville wrote in nominating the center for the award.

She said her son plays taking items to a dump and a recycling center.

"He has piles for each material and a plant to make new stuff," she wrote.

Weber, a human development specialist and certified elementary education teacher, opened the center seven years ago in a building across from the Westminster Post Office. Weber and her nine-member staff take care of 42 children -- infants to 2-year-olds upstairs and 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds on the ground floor.

"We're working really hard to make them good citizens," said Weber.

She started the center instead of teaching elementary school because "I feel I can really make a difference with this age. The first years are the most critical. They're sponges."

These sponges soak up "green" lessons.

Barbara Jose of Manchester laughs about the time her 4-year-old daughter, Lisa, decided to hug a pine tree.

"Miss Weber forgot to tell her not to hug a tree when it has sap on it," Jose said. "Her whole front was sticky."

Lisa Jose makes sure her parents remember to recycle items.

"She reminds us we have to be nice to certain bugs because they take care of other bugs," her mother said.

Maureen Flickinger of Westminster, mother of 4-year-old Sean, said it isn't her son's nature to come home and talk about everything he did at the center. But "he'll pick out pictures of gorillas in a book and tell me they're endangered," she said.

Environmental education is part of a curriculum Weber designed to teach young children about the world.

Deaf students from Western Maryland College teach the children sign language. Firefighters and police officers, particularly females who can serve as role models for the girls, visit the center. Exchange students from Westminster High School bring snacks from their countries and sing to the children in their native languages.

Environmental education "is part of good citizenship," Weber said. "When they leave the water running, we talk about that. When they go through 20 pieces of paper, we talk about that. At lunchtime, we talk about what [items from their lunches] they can recycle."

The center is not a classroom where everyone is required to sit quietly. Three- and 4-year-olds behave like 3- and 4-year-olds. There are complaints about who did what to whom, excited interruptions when someone spots a mail carrier on the street or suddenly thinks of something to say. The children are learning social skills, Weber said.

One recent lesson started with the children seated in a circle, naming things they could recycle. They listed bottles, aluminum and "old trees," before attention waned.

But it picked up again when the students lined up to go outdoors.

"Somebody has trashed our playground," Weber told them. "Is it a mess? Wait till you see it."

The children's task was to pick up the trash in their construction trucks and haul it to a collection point by the sandbox, where they could separate recyclables.

They burst onto the playground with enthusiasm, grabbed toy construction trucks and picked up aluminum cans, plastic bottles, cups and pieces of paper.

"I got two cans," said Kerry Power, 5, of Hampstead, as she filled her truck and headed for the recycling center. "I'm cleaning up it."

Within minutes, the play area was free of trash, the recycling bins and trash can filled. The children turned to the sandbox, where they dug for buried treasure and tried to reach what one boy said was "the bottom of the earth."

Weber plans lessons a month in advance and shares the information with parents, so they can reinforce the lessons at home. Each April, she focuses on the earth's problems, "and how we can make it better."

Weber's environmental consciousness goes back so far into her childhood that she isn't sure where it originated. She grew up on a small working farm in Union Mills. She learned to appreciate the environment on family hikes, and became a vegetarian after she learned the fate of steers her parents raised.

"I think I've always been like this," she said.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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