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A place where learning is play

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

The screen doors open and close so many times, the metal screens are long gone, leaving just a white wood frame. But that's OK, laughs Stephanie Jones as she ushers in another child from the backyard where they were busy making bird feeders. She'd rather see the doors get used too much than not at all.

The clapping of the door frames lead inside to The Awesome Clubhouse @ La Escuelita, a cozy rental house transformed into an after-school enclave for children in the West Athens neighborhood of Garnett Ridge and surrounding streets. The house begins buzzing with activity by 3:30 p.m. most school days, after the kids get off the school buses.

They move from room to room, picking out a book from the lending library, painting in the art room or building with blocks or Legos in the Building Room, a room designed for "constructive" play. On a recent afternoon, two girls sat quietly braiding ribbon bracelets for one girl's mother, while an outgoing second-grader gave one of the teacher education students instructions on how to walk a fashion runway. Down the hall in the main room, a child got help with his homework from another education student, while more kids streamed through the kitchen to try a variety of snacks—apples, croissants, broccoli and cauliflower.

Student Teacher and KidsThe idea, says Jones, is to give the kids a place to come and be creative while subtlety guiding them toward a strong sense of self and learning. Jones is a professor in the College of Education's Department of Educational Theory and Practice, and The Awesome Clubhouse houses learning for both the elementary- aged kids who pop in after school as well as early childhood education students who learn more about interacting with kids from diverse social and economic backgrounds.

"There's a lot of research that tells us that when we create a curriculum out of a child's interests, they have a really high level of success," says Jones. "It's cultivating curiosity, creativity and a sense of power."

This culture of creativity starts with how the rooms are set up. Open shelves and baskets hold items for play—it's up to the children to figure out how to use them. By encouraging them to explore and pull out what they need, Jones says, it's helping them be creative with what they find. Then, it's up to Jones and the dozen or so UGA students to cultivate that curiosity by asking questions and interacting with the children to encourage unstructured play.

For example, one student pulls out a drawing he made of Jones. But before he's distracted by another item in his book bag, she's quick to ask, "What can you tell me about this picture? What am I doing in it?" That leads to a discussion of what he'd like to be doing, which then leads to the options he can explore at the clubhouse that day.

Before it was The Awesome Clubhouse, the space was home to a neighborhood location of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens. When that organization closed the program in January 2013, Jones says, the owner of the Garnett Ridge subdivision, a neighborhood ofsingle-family and duplex homes for working-class families, reached out to her about an opportunity to serve the neighborhood children.

On any given day, several dozen children come through the house. Unlike the Boys & Girls Clubs, which has structured activities and mandatory homework time, The Awesome Clubhouse has an open-door policy. Through fliers and door- to-door efforts, Jones and her students are building a level of trust with the parents who live in the neighborhood.

"We had a five- to six-month incubation period, to build on the strengths of the community," says Jones, who has spent time going door-to-door in the neighborhood to meet parents and explain the program. The Awesome Clubhouse is funded mainly by Jones' workshop, "The Other Side of Poverty," which she gives around the state to help educators to better address the needs of students coming from poor backgrounds. Program support also comes from the College of Education's Dean's Office.

Food literacy is an integral part of the program, Jones adds, and as a program of the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, there isa diverse selection of snacks in the kitchen(the food bank also helps maintain the building, among other support services). Denise Davila, a fellow assistant professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, comes by on Wednesdays for her "Storybook Chefs" program, which blends literature and cooking.

On Mondays, kids can opt for lessons in the outdoors and wildlife with a visit from Wild Intelligence, an Athens-based organization that helps connect children to the natural world. Art professor Jim Woglom leads an art club. And the clubhouse is even open on weekends, when an early childhood education group led by Dr. Kyunghwa Lee meets to work with younger children.

The little house also serves as a research space for Jones and her students. Jones, who is interested in the dynamics of working-class families and how this can enhance education, uses the space to see how children interact with the things around them. "Most spaces for children don't think about the children," she says. "I'm thinking about the materiality of a space—what kinds of materials they have access to. When there's a hesitation to access materials because adults are controlling them, how much creativity and problem-solving can I do when I have limited access?"

The teacher-education students who work at the Awesome Clubhouse also gain practical experience.

As she sat on the floor of the "building" room, Xiaoying Zhao, a graduate student, says the children have taught her to be flexible.

"When the kids come here, sometimes I'm trying to get some ideas" for creative lessons, she says. "But I've learned to just be flexible and learn with the kids. Also, I'm new to the community and I'm learning stuff from the kids."

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