Dordt College News

Stepping Stones preschool opens

August 21, 2012

Dordt students and area preschoolers learn together

For some time Education Professor Gwen Marra has had a dream.

What if she could combine the expertise of Dordt College faculty and local educators to give preschool students a great education and, at the same time, give Dordt education students a hands-on learning opportunity? Her dream has become a reality. Stepping Stones Preschool opened its doors this fall.

“I wanted my students to work at preschools that fit well with Dordt’s Christian perspective on education and that give them an opportunity to see all sides of operating a preschool,” said Marra. “I also want them to have really positive experiences.”

As the former director of Learning Ship Preschool, Marra knew that there was a “huge need” in Sioux Center for preschools.

“I started discussing the concept with Education Professor Tim Van Soelen and with Provost (now President) Erik Hoekstra. We wanted to make sure that it would benefit both Dordt students and the young preschoolers who would enroll. Once we felt that it was a win-win situation, we decided to pursue it,” Marra says.

At that point Dordt alumna Christy Hulstein was drawn in. Hulstein, the owner and director of Bullfrogs and Butterflies Preschool in Sioux Center, was asked if she’d be interested in joining forces with Dordt and the Learning Ship Preschool to form Stepping Stones.

“I think it’s great for the community, and teaming together opens up all kinds of possibilities,” said Hulstein.

Hulstein is now the director and one of six teachers at Stepping Stones. They teach 140 preschoolers in nine sections.

Six elementary education students who take Marra’s “Introduction to Early Childhood” or “Administration of Early Childhood Programs” are completing 20-hour practicums at Stepping Stones, working with and observing classroom educators and getting experience working with the preschoolers.

“They love to have books read to them, and they love to cuddle on the beanbags,” says Hulstein. “Dordt students help the preschoolers review their colors, fix a puzzle, or make bracelets. Having extra people to keep them focused is fantastic.”

Kelsey De Kam, a junior elementary education major who is halfway through her 20-hour practicum, helps reinforce what the preschoolers are learning.

“I go around during their free play and ask them questions about what they are doing and questions to further their learning,” she said.

Already, Dordt education students see benefits of “real world” experience.

“It’s much easier to apply ourselves to the topics we learn in class when we spend time doing it in the preschool classroom,” said Rachel Mulder, a junior elementary education major.

“Christy and the teachers have so much knowledge and so it is great to learn from them,” adds Kristina Haan, a senior elementary education major. “You don’t have that kind of experience in a college classroom.”

Dordt students also get a chance to see the administrative side of the preschool.

“I want my students to look at the preschool with the eye of a director,” said Marra. “I have them do environment assessments, making sure that the learning space is appropriate.”

Haan gave an example.

“We observed a classroom without students to look at the floor plan and layout,” she said.

“Then, we observed the class with the preschoolers, reflecting on what worked in the environment and what could be changed to improve it.”

Such experiences push the students to think about their future classrooms.

“You get ideas from the teachers and think, ‘I want to have that when I have my own preschool,’” said Haan.

She hopes that her experience at Stepping Stones will help her to answer questions about teaching Christianly.

“How do you as a teacher balance home life, faith? How do you live out your faith in the classroom? How do you disciple the kids? It’s fun to see educators answering these questions for themselves at Stepping Stones, and it gets me excited to do that in my own classroom,” says Haan.

The collaborative effort is a new experience for all involved.

“The first time through things such as organizing field trips and signing time cards for work-study students takes longer,” said Hulstein. But, with the help of an advisory board and the work of Dr. Timothy Van Soelen, the preschool is off to a good start.

“It’s great to have Dordt administration and faculty say, ‘we want you [students] to go to a place that lives out a Christian perspective on education,’” says Haan. “I’m really glad they did this. I think it’s a great partnership for everyone involved.”


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