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About the ELC

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The Early Learning Center first opened in 1927 as a Nursery School program in the Jessie B. Harris Home Economics Building. In the early 1930s, a Nursery School Building at 1206 White Avenue was constructed. It was one of the first structures in the country designed and built specifically for the use of preschool children.

Eventually the program was named the University of Tennessee Child Development Laboratory. The daycare program for preschoolers was begun at the Golf Range facility at 3700 Sutherland Avenue in 1966. The Infant Day Care program opened in 1968 and the Toddler Day Care program in 1981 at the Nursery School Building.

In the fall of 1982, the Nursery School (half-day) program was discontinued and all programs were converted to full-day childcare. After extensive renovations to the kitchen and food service areas, the Infant and Preschool programs were located at 1206 White Avenue. The facility on Sutherland Avenue was also renovated so that it could adequately house the toddler program.

In 1983, the special education component was added to the Preschool program. The inclusion of children with special rights became a welcomed mission and goal of the program.

The program converted to a full-time twelve-month schedule as an additional step to meet the needs of working parents in the fall of 1986. Also in 1986, the Foster Grandparent program, placing grandparents in the laboratory programs to work with children with special rights, was initiated. The special education component was expanded to include the Infant and Toddler programs in 1987.

In 1987, the program became the first child care program in Knoxville to receive accreditation from the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a division of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Also in 1987, the Cumberland Child Care Center was established as the first employer-sponsored early education center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Cumberland Child Care Center began operations under the UT Knoxville personnel office. In 1989, the administration of the center was transferred to the Department of Child and Family Studies as a first step in the expansion of university childcare programs.

In 1991, the Cumberland Child Care Center was restructured as one of the Child Development Laboratories’ programs. This became the CDL’s third site (White Avenue, Cumberland, and Golf Range), and a total of ninety-nine children, ranging in age from six weeks to five years, were served.

In 2000, the Cumberland facility was closed and newly renovated space in the Laurel Avenue Student Apartments became the third Child Development Laboratories site. An eighth classroom was opened to expand the number of children served to a total of 111. The programs were simultaneously restructured to create the Infant and Toddler programs at Golf Range and Laurel Avenue, and the Preschool program at White Avenue.

In July 2005, the Child Development Laboratories became the University of Tennessee Early Learning Center for Research and Practice. This change came from a desire to better reflect the diverse mission and goals of the program and the Department of Child and Family Studies.

In August 2006, the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice initiated a new Kindergarten program at the White Avenue location.

In July 2011, the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice closed the Golf Range facility and opened a new facility; Lake Avenue at 21st Street. This facility serves two toddler classrooms and one preschool classroom.


The mission of the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice (ELC) is to foster scientific understanding of young children’s development. Prominent features of the ELC mission are the investigation of development in context, the study of children and families at risk, and the generation and utilization of informed practices. The ELC accomplishes this mission through (a) interdisciplinary research, (b) academic programs for undergraduate and graduate students, (c) early education programs for young children, and (d) outreach, advocacy, and public policy.

Interdisciplinary Research

The ELC leads and supports interdisciplinary research initiatives that share the common purpose of making qualitative differences in the lives of children and families. To this end, projects are typically conducted in natural settings, which better ensures the findings are socially significant and readily applied by parents and professionals. Research is supported by university, state, federal, and private agencies and addresses a wide range of current and emerging issues relevant to contemporary society. Current research includes: teacher inquiry, documentation of teaching and learning, school readiness, the effect of quality care on children’s development, family-centered practices, and linking authentic assessment to child outcomes.

University Academic Programs

Theoretical principles and empirical findings guide the selection and implementation of informed practices that are showcased in ELC classrooms. Undergraduate and graduate students discover how theory and practice combine to contribute to a deeper and more useful understanding of development in context. Through a diversity of ELC experiences, students learn to value and engage in processes of critical inquiry and systematic research that challenge popular solutions to complex problems related to the welfare of children and families.

Early Education Programs

The ELC provides an exemplary, inclusive early care and education program for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and their families. Children and families represent a wide diversity of racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The program design assures a well-balanced curriculum that promotes the physical, emotional, social, creative, and cognitive development of young children. The curriculum is guided by a theoretical orientation, which posits that all children, regardless of their developmental dispositions, are active learners who construct increasingly more complex representations of the world, primarily through the processes of play.

Outreach, Advocacy, and Public Policy

The ELC serves as a bridge between the university and the broader community through its involvement in outreach, advocacy, and public policy. As new knowledge is generated about young children and families, it is shared with local, national, and international constituencies of parents and professionals. The ELC also promotes university-community partnerships that facilitate the dissemination and utilization of resources in response to the needs of families and children, particularly those at risk. Because the ELC faculty, staff, and students generate and have access to science-based knowledge, they are in a unique position to advocate for children and families and influence public policy.

In all these respects, the ELC strives to achieve not only its own mission, but also the missions espoused by the Department of Child and Family Studies and the University of Tennessee.


Since the mission of the Early Learning Center is a multi-faceted one—embracing university students, young children, and the community—our philosophy must be equally encompassing. Therefore, we consider the following statements as the guide and focus of our experiences with all children and adults.

We believe that children and adults are:

  • Capable, competent, rich and powerful in ideas and abilities
  • Both uniquely individual and yet similar to others, in thinking and development
  • Active organizers of experience and thoughts
  • Interested in learning primarily though meaningful human relationships
  • Constantly constructing and reconstructing their own theories and understandings of how the world works

Our overall goals focus our efforts on providing learning opportunities that can enable the individual to work towards developing the competencies needed to function successfully and meaningfully in a changing world.

We aim to help children and adults:

  • Trust, respect, and invest emotionally in meaningful personal relationships
  • Acquire and use effective and satisfying problem-finding and problem-solving skills and strategies
  • Be curious about the natural and social world and derive skill and pleasure from learning, exploring and developing ideas, theories, and competencies
  • Understand and organize information about their physical, social, and intellectual environment
  • Develop abilities and interests in representing their ideas in many varied and complex ways, through the use of many media (languages)
  • Develop the ability to act and think independently with assurance and confidence in their ideas, convictions, abilities, and strengths
  • Develop effective means of self-regulation and control, which will enable them to learn, think and act with feelings of self-worth and self-confidence within a complex social and intellectual world
  • Skillfully communicate ideas and feelings

We hope to achieve these goals by:

  • Providing children and adults with open-ended, process oriented activities and investigations that value play as the preferred medium of learning for young children
  • Providing adequate amounts of time for exploration, skill building, and thinking
  • Having an intellectually complex and rigorous curriculum filled with possibilities
  • Using a wide variety of quality materials designed to promote active exploration and challenges
  • Expecting learners to direct and construct their own learning with the assistance of perceptive, reassuring, and responsive teachers


Resources from which we draw:

The Early Childhood Curriculum: A Creative Play Model by Catron & Allen provides the roots from which our curriculum and programming has grown and matured.

Developmentally Appropriate Practices with its focus on age and individual appropriateness provides boundaries for us as we navigate the immense possibilities for curriculum.

Social Constructivist beliefs – how children construct their own understandings of their world through the relationships they form with peers, adults, and materials – permeate our approach.

The exceptional practices and principles of the Reggio Emilia approach continually inspire us with possibilities for children’s learning.

Principles of the Early Learning Center curriculum:

  • Central to our approach is an idea borrowed from the Reggio Emilia approach—all children are competent, capable, and ready to learn, having rich and powerful ideas;
  • Observation of children—their skills and interests—is the foundation from which our curriculum emerges;
  • Analysis of our observations of children provides the road map that shows us the direction to go when planning curriculum;
  • Thorough knowledge of child development in the following areas—emotional well-being, socialization, communication, cognition, perceptual motor, and self-help provides detail for what children need to master and at what ages;
  • Noticing and appreciating the uniqueness of each child—ability, personality, temperament, style—keeps us focused on providing a range of possibilities for children;
  • Play is the vehicle through which young children can learn most effectively;
  • Challenging learning opportunities in the major content areas—literacy, math, science, music and art ensure create a foundation for later formal education;

What do the classroom and the day look like?

  • Learning centers such as drawing and writing, blocks, puzzles and games, books, housekeeping, dramatic play, science, discovery, painting and art are found in each toddler and preschool classroom.
  • A wide variety of challenging, enticing, creative materials are available in each of the learning centers for children to examine, manipulate, and construct with.
  • Children are free to choose the areas and materials they would like to work on and may move independently around the classroom, however, there are times during the day when only one choice exists.
  • Images of children studying and gaining understanding of their world and examples of their work are carefully presented for viewing and reflection.
  • The day includes a balance—individual, small and large group activities, quiet/active experiences, indoor/outdoor, child initiated and teacher initiated activities, focused investigative work, physical care and routines.
  • Routines such as lunch and snack times, diapering and toileting, clean-up, rest time, and transitions indoors and outdoors are considered opportunities for learning.

Children in the Early Learning Center:

  • Form a community living and working with others in their classroom group;
  • Actively engage in situations which require them to think, plan, experiment, analyze, problem solve, and reflect;
  • Creatively use words, materials, and art supplies to construct, express, and represent their ideas;
  • Learn about, interact with, and experience children and adults who are different from them; and
  • Develop skills and dispositions for learning—questioning, study, hypothesis-building, and analysis.