Learn from resources in your own town

Active study does not have to be relegated to the classroom setting. The best teaching, especially at the elementary and early childhood levels, is a partnership between school, home, and community.

Lucy Sprague Mitchell (1878-1967) dedicated her life to child welfare and believed that “learning math, literature and science could be accomplished more effectively by linking them to an active study instead of reading and memorizing facts and statistics from a workbook.”

By actual involvement in what one is learning and being able to ask questions, knowledge becomes more connected to the visual, auditory, and sensory memories, a key foundation to deeper learning.

Ms. Mitchell’s philosophy comes beautifully to life in the curriculum developed by Bank Street College of Education, and implemented in many schools throughout the country. Active learning begins by acknowledging the child’s world and the constellation in which they live as part of their own unique diverse family unit. From that knowledge, exploration expands to the broader environment, the neighborhood, community and the world. The larger panorama enhances each step with a genuine understanding and context. This curriculum is based on true social studies in a concrete and applicable way.

Whether one’s school directly implements the Bank Street method or not, parents can easily take the initiative. One way to do this is by exploring and learning from the resources in the towns where we live. Teaching children to appreciate their neighborhood merchants and how to behave appropriately in places of business has many benefits. Although their reputation is often otherwise, many small shops and stores are family friendly and sources of knowledge that will last a lifetime. For many, impersonal malls take precedence and there is little or no time spent exploring what local merchants have to offer. These large or humongous homes to chains have their place, but are not conducive to building interpersonal relationships with merchants and the learning that takes place in more intimate

If you are not already familiar with the small shops in your area or close by, many jewels are waiting to be discovered. Suburban families can look toward their closest small town or city and know that the merchants will appreciate the patronage.

The town that I live in, Lambertville, is known for its picturesque setting on the Delaware River and its welcoming spirit. Many storekeepers develop loyal followings by being family friendly. Our local drug store, Bear Pharmacy, is a case in point; not only is this store child-friendly, but canine-friendly as well. The pharmacist enjoys engaging in conversation, likes children, and will take time to answer questions. He often comes out from behind the counter to tell the little ones how to protect themselves in cold weather, or how to keep healthy by frequently washing their hands.

Icelander Hrefna Jonsdottir’s beautiful art gallery, and home of exquisite framing, is also the place where families are welcome. Children can observe the beautiful artwork (most is by local artists) and spend time playing with Bangsi (“teddy bear” in Icelandic) the proprietor’s devoted canine companion. This fantastic dog is an Icelandic Sheepdog, one of the oldest breeds in the world and Iceland’s only native dog. Highly intelligent, kind, and well behaved, he seems to soothe whatever child is in the gallery, helping to model and establish the rules of good behavior. I have seen parents spend half an hour to carefully examine a painting or discuss a frame while children play nicely with the dog or become entranced with the artwork on the walls.

At Boxwoods, a local flower and gift shop, owners are resourceful, and when parents shop, children can spend fascinated time looking at their large pool stocked with gold fish and water plants. Children also are listened-to and free to ask questions about the beautiful flowers and household plants. The proprietors have two lovely children who themselves sometimes work at the store. Their young teenage girls have also designed and sell their own art projects, proceeds of which go to charity.

These are just a few of the family friendly stores in Lambertville, a listing of which should also include a children’s resale shop, Finkle’s, “the most unusual hardware store in the world,” Artcraft Shoe Repair, where the cobbler loves to talk about his trade, and many more. What a great experience for a child to get to know these shopkeepers and learn about different kinds of real work. Such learning cannot be underestimated or equated with the impersonality of the mall or shopping online.

When hunger calls or its time for a coffee break in Lambertville, Rick’s Italian Restaurant, Café Galleria, Sneddon’s, and City Market all welcome families. Rojo’s Roastery, and the 20 year-old landmark Lambertville Trading Company (LTC) make room for young and old to have treats. One of the joys of LTC is meeting the family that founded the store and where, having grown up with the business, both children, now young adults, continue to work. Gabe Stephens says it all in one of his college essays.

” Lambertville, New Jersey is a small historic community on the Delaware River dating back to the Revolutionary War, where “everyone knows your name.” For the past 28 years my parents have owned and operated the longest running independent coffee bar in the area. I was raised in the back of our store with the aromatic smell of coffee beans being brewed a few feet away. As I grew tall enough to reach the counter I began to help customers, and receiving a tip was the highlight of my day. Over the years, my working hours have increased along with my appreciation for my parents. Running a small business is a challenge, as is going along with the ebb and flow of the economy. Being raised in a business means that I never had to develop a work ethic, it was engrained from birth.”

One of the plusses of hard times can be that it asks us to do what we should have for a long time: acknowledge and be grateful for those who choose to sustain the lifeblood of communities and inspire the future generations as well. In a society that is used getting in the car and traveling to shop, shopping local requires a reorientation. Malls may be a personal preference as a simple exchange of money for goods or services, but aside from the actual transaction, small, neighborhood shops offer a more complete experience and a window into more avenues of learning and experiencing life in a fuller, richer, more meaningful way. By shopping locally, children are provided with a multitude of learning opportunities and an invaluable way of getting to know and understand the world from one small corner in which they live. This is exactly what Lucy Sprague Mitchell was talking about — the best kind of teaching can and should start at home.

To find small shop destinations in your area, check out the local area chamber of commerce Web site. The one for Lambertville is: www.lambertville.org.

For more information about Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Bank Street educational philosophy, go to: www.bankstreet.edu/about/history_beg.html.