Hearts Leap Center

The following blog post was written by Hanyun Cai, an ICRI intern for 2011-2012. Hanyun grew up in Shanghai, China and studied anthropology and biology in the United States. She is deeply interested in issues of early childhood education and non-profit management. "I am committed to bringing invaluable lessons learned at ICRI back home to benefit more children in the world," she said. This post describes her recent visit to our Hearts Leap South Center at 2640 College Avenue in Berkeley, CA.

The moment I walked into the Oak Room, I wanted to be a child again. Sixteen three- year-olds formed a circle on the floor. On the giant blue and white dyed table cloth, they were enjoying an indoor picnic, sipping hot chocolate while munching on freshly baked pastries. It was a room full of happy laughter, pleasant aromas, stimulating colors and round-corner wooden furniture, all immersed in warm natural light. Countless developmentally appropriate activities, mostly art-related, take place here, with high parental involvement and full attention from teachers— something uncommon in a preschool elsewhere; but in Hearts Leap Preschool, this is every day.

PC086029 Picture 1. Picnic in the Oak Room.

Located in the historic Julia Morgan Centerfor the Arts, Hearts Leap is one of the six child care and early childhood development centers operated by International Child Resource Institute (ICRI) in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2001, ICRI was asked to take over the operation of this child care center in south Berkeley, and Hearts Leap has since been recognized both locally and internationally as a model early childhood program. Staffed with twelve talented and dedicated teachers, Hearts Leap not only demonstrates the best possible preschool but also experiments with new ways of teaching according to most recent pedagogical research. It always receives high demand for slots from local parents. Educators from around the world come here for study and learning exchange opportunities.

PC086006 Picture 2. Small Group Time for Reflection and Community.

When asked what makes Hearts Leap different, Ellie Mashhour, the Child Care Operations Manager at ICRI, said: “We look at each individual child, see where the child is, what the child needs, and how we as adults can really push him/her to that direction which he/she desires most.”

Hearts Leap utilizes a discovery-based emergent curriculum. The central philosophy of an emergent curriculum is that everything is emergent in nature and the planning of curriculum should reflect both children’s and teachers’ interests and passions. It is a dynamic process that focuses on the dialogue and cooperation between teachers and children, encouraging creative, experiential, and life-related learning. Inspired by developmental psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky and world-known philosopher John Dewey, the curriculum is drastically different from a predefined curriculum under which children always do the same thing by following a set of concrete instructions together (Yu-le 2004).

Young children learn by imagining and doing. Granted with a lot of independence, children are soaked in an interactive learning environment with experienced staff on a day to day basis. A range of activities, including music and movement, yoga and gymnastics, take place here every day. Teachers not only use language, but also gestures, facial expressions, drawings, music to communicate with children. Ellie said, “We are not babysitting children. We are not just looking after them so they are safe. We are teachers, here to assist and guide them.” The classroom is a highly engaging and inspirational space.

PC086000 Picture 3. Diverse Constructions Make An Outdoor Play Area Fun--Always Something to Explore.

PC086039 Picture 4. The Classroom Provides Children with A Plentitude of Opportunities to Express Themselves by Doing Art.

The classroom setting is an “unspoken teacher” in emergent curriculum. Hearts Leap constructs explorative and developing classrooms where teachers, students, and teaching materials interact in the context of dialogue. Designed with exquisite details, Hearts Leap is a safe, homey and dreamy place that contains areas devoted to art expression, music, pretend play, science, reading, sports, etc. Children’s social and emotional skills, language skills, thinking skills, and ability to imagine and to create are encouraged to grow together in such an environment.

PC086050 Picture 5. Reading Corner Designed for Children to Develop Their Literacy Skills.

PC086041 Picture 6. Pretend Play Area—“Doctor” and “Patient.”

PC086033 Picture 7. Music/movement Area.

PC085986 Picture 8. Block Play Area.

Under an emergent curriculum, Hearts Leap seeks to promote the full realization of a child’s whole life—every child is considered a distinct individual. The staff aims to correspond to the need of the child all-round development. Everyone’s uniqueness is highly appreciated here. For instance, the rooms are filled with pictures, completed projects, and detailed information of each child. Hearts Leap also maintains a library of “Love Letters” in which if a teacher has any contact with a child, he/she writes couple of sentences about the day and the activity. In addition, a portfolio is created and kept since day one at Hearts Leap, including copies of the first picture one draws and another one does six months later.

PC085988 Picture 9. Every Child’s Family is Connected via a Map on the Wall.

High parental involvement and community engagement is another feature that makes Hearts Leap stand out. Ellie said: “We maintain close contact with the schools in Berkeley and Oakland—know the kindergarten teachers and first-grade school teachers. Our staffs go and sit down in their classrooms and hear their expectations. We are fully aware what transitions they are looking for in a child.” The administrator also makes great efforts to ensure both school and home are continuous learning spaces for students. Parents are encouraged to take active roles in organizing community events and playing with children, and maintaining constant contact with teachers.

PC085981 Picture 10. Parental Involvement is Essential Piece of Hearts Leap’s High Quality Childcare.

Beyond its local operation, Hearts Leap engages in international efforts to impact more children’s lives. In 2005, Ellie was invited to talk about early childhood development curriculum inSharonChildcareCenterin a small village nearNairobi,Kenyafor the first time. However when she arrived, she realized there was something that deserved more attention,

“It was hard for me to work with the staff when I was seeing the hungry children; many of them were with one teacher. I wanted to talk to the teachers about health and safety but there was even no water for me to show them how to wash their hands. So my focus immediately went to the basic needs to provide children with water and food.”

After the trip, Ellie shared her story with the families at Hearts Leap and organized several fundraising events. The preschool had a cooking project in which the children baked and sold the cookies to parents. It raised $750 dollars and bought water bottles, which were later painted by the children and sent to children inKenya. “Last year, we also funded a trip for the children inSharonCenterto visit the city as a gift for their graduation. Now we have hired a local nurse to visitSharononce a month,” said Ellie.

PC146067-1 Picture 11. Message Board at Hearts Leap with Pictures Sent from Kenya.

Her dream is to find a permanent site for the sixty children at Sharon Center, “Right now they are at the church so they are not able to participate in schooling every day if there is a wedding or funeral. I will continue to work with the teachers to find a better place. The challenge is cultural issues that are not being paid attention, to get to know them.”

In close relationship with ICRI Africa, Hearts Leap has extended its experience of building access to high quality and developmentally-appropriate early childhood education forAfrica’s poorest children. By imaging and creating a child-caring community beyond boundaries, Hearts Leap manifests the possibilities of what a child care center today can be—a promising and enlightening picture it is painting for all children.


Reference: Yu-le, Z. (2004). Some thoughts on emergent curriculum. Paper presented at the Forum for Integrated Education and Educational Reform sponsored by the Council for Global Integrated Education,Santa Cruz,CA, October 28-30.