On a recent morning with a fresh spring breeze wafting in from a cracked door, Kimberly Trapani ’15, ’18 M.A., the head teacher in the classroom for four-year-olds at the Brooklyn College Early Childhood Center, sits in the belly of a white tulle-skirted teepee. She’s signing and clapping, and egging on a group of students who are jumping up and down in the middle of a circular rug before they are encouraged over to a group of tables where they will start working on a craft project.

“Everything just flows,” says Trapani, while taking a quick break to describe class activities as well as the ever-evolving layout of the room—a minimalist and ethereal treatment that features lots of open space, little furniture, and incandescent spot and string lights that have supplanted the fluorescent ones overhead.

Trapani’s master’s thesis focused on how the environment affects a child’s behavior and development and says she’s seeing how the classroom design bears out her own findings.

“It’s proven that those harsh flickering [fluorescent] lights create behavioral differences and less focus,” she says. “I worked in this room with these lights on and was constantly like: What’s wrong with these kids? It was the room, the lighting, the materials, the furniture,” she says, before adding: “My approach.”

The new approach that Trapani and the other teachers at the center adopted about two years ago is called Reggio Emilia, a pedagogical philosophy that emphasizes self-directed learning and favors play and discovery of items from the natural environment over store-bought toys. It also centers on a child’s relationships with teachers, parents, and peers, and recasts the teacher as a co-student as well as an instructor.

“It’s based on children’s wonderment looking up at others, the world, nature—anything the child is drawn to or curious about becomes a tool for learning,” explains Colleen Goddard, the center’s educational director. “If a child doesn’t have that sense and ease of wonderment our job is to create an environment where that can flourish.”

Earlier this month, the center—in conjunction with the School of Education’s Early Childhood Education/Art Education Department—hosted its second annual Art of Play and Wonderment Conference, part of an effort to connect with their peers across the city and to share the philosophy and tips for the implementation of a Reggio-inspired classroom.

This year, more than 175 people attended from the city’s Department of Education, other preschools, and schools of education to discuss topics from how to be more present with young children in the context of a bustling learning environment to how to better connect with parents. The theme focused on celebrating relationships.

“I’ve been dreaming about us being able to host conferences like this for years,” says Jacqueline D. Shannon, chair of the academic department and an associate professor. “Showing our earliest educators it isn’t just about learning to play, but about playing to learn, and developing meaningful relationships.”

The day-long conference ended with a tour of the Early Childhood Center, where most of the traditional toys have been replaced with branches and rocks and other natural materials. Conference goers saw the photography of the three-year olds and took in the sensory exploration that the two-year olds were working on.

“You don’t need Fisher Price toys to fulfill a child’s curiosity, they can build on what they find in the backyard,” says Goddard, also an instructor in the academic department. “We set out things for children to explore and look at and take in whatever direction they go with it.”

The center has also started doing professional development on the Reggio philosophy for teachers and administrators from other schools across the city.

“Brooklyn College’s long-standing commitment to empowering our students and the early childhood community—through our department’s curriculum and the Art of Play and Wonderment conference—brings our city’s culturally diverse early childhood teachers, leaders, faculty, students, and artists together to promote children’s play as an art form that fosters children’s imagination and wonderment,” says Shannon. “Brooklyn College is at the center of bringing stakeholders together to inspire and enrich the broader early childhood community.”

Established in 1953 as the Laboratory School of the Early Childhood School of Education, the Early Childhood Center provides a space for students to explore questions of child development and to study the contributions of educational, social, and cultural environments to support children’s growth and learning. The Early Childhood Center Programs offer day programs for infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children. Parents and family members are actively involved in their children’s education at the center. The ECC also offers instructional, observational, and research opportunities for students, interns, and faculty at Brooklyn College.