AUGUSTA — Tuesdae Masse recalls the time when she walked into the Waterville location of her child care center and packed the plastic toys into a trash bag. She told the children they were going to do something new.

As the children sat and watched in confusion, they had no idea Masse was doing this to introduce new toys — toys that were nontraditional and based in nature — as a way to introduce a new learning method at the day care, the Curiosity Approach.

The Curiosity Approach implements a “calm, cozy approach,” according to Masse, and uses natural play that resembles a child’s natural environment.

“It has made a huge difference,” she said. “The teachers have said that the students are less chaotic, they have calm bodies and they gravitate toward the natural learning environments — they don’t ask for the old toys.”

The success of their Waterville day care facility, The Hungry Caterpillars Learning Center, has prompted Masse and her husband, Josh, to open The Curious Caterpillars Learning Center in Augusta, also focused on alternative learning methods. The Augusta facility is scheduled to open Monday.

Masse said her passion for education began about six years ago, with her wanting to be a teacher so she could be home for her young children.

Through the stints she had working in education, she saw methods she wanted to improve. She also wanted to teach in ways that went beyond the “traditional” public school, test-based, structured learning model.

As she worked toward her doctorate in education from Capella University, an online school headquartered in Minneapolis, she was encouraged by her husband to start her own day care. It lead to the start of The Hungry Caterpillars Learning Center in Waterville about three years ago, and this week the Augusta location will hold its grand opening, implementing a learning method about which Masse is passionate.

“There are a lot of children out there that deserve to be in a good (learning) environment,” Masse said. “There is research out there that a lot of facilities help families that don’t have a lot of other options, but not for families that fall in between or don’t make the cut because they are not income eligible.”

Tuesdae Masse and her son, Nolan, 4, play with toy food Dec. 23 at The Curious Caterpillars Learning Center, which is scheduled to open Monday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE LEARNING?

Julie DellaMattera, an associate professor of early childhood development and education at the University of Maine, said she could not think of reasons children should not participate in alternative learning environments.

Using an example of a toy car, she explained how such teaching can work: If given a toy car, a child can move it or even smash it around because he or she is aware of what happens on the street. A child will rarely turn a toy car into a telephone, doll, hat or bed. It will always be a car to him or her. But if children are given a rock or sticks, it encourages them to use their imagination and pretend.

Masse has incorporated nature-based play into her child care centers, which DellaMattera said can sometimes be misinterpreted among adults.

“People think that nature-based means being outside, but nature-based means using natural materials,” DellaMattera said. “We found that when you give kids Legos or play kitchen sets, it’s not that they stop using their imagination. It’s that it’s boxed in.

“If I use kitchen sets, I’m supposed to do kitchen-type things, and they know that you cook and food goes in the fridge. It limits how they play in the space. They don’t take a kitchen set and pretend it’s a car.”

Some families may not have Legos or playdough to replicate play at home, she said. By using natural materials, students are encouraged to learn and play, no matter the environment. DellaMattera said this encourages natural creativity, and it is easier for parents to teach children when they are at home.

“For kids, they’re trying to figure out the world at their age and their place in it,” DellaMattera said. “The world is full of nature stuff, and they can see what happens to a leaf over time, or bark, or think, ‘Can I crush a rock?’ It’s science-based, and all of those things are what we want a scientist to be skeptical about.”

Masse said including nature-based materials in play has encouraged students to use their imagination and thinking skills. It has also caused the children to be able to sit for 45 minutes at a time, focused on trying to explore the items with which they are playing.

One of the children’s favorite play methods is a suitcase that has been turned into a treasure box. Every time the box comes down, there are new objects for the children to explore — usually items they do not see often, such as seashells or silk clothes.

“When they see it come down, every time it opens, there is something new in there,” Masse said. “It’s magical, curiosity, and they know there is a new treasure in there that they can see and paw through.”

Owner Tuesdae Masse and her son, Nolan, 4, play with modeling compound Dec. 23 at The Curious Caterpillars Learning Center, which is scheduled to open Monday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

TRANSITIONING TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Heather Duquette said from the start, she has felt her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Avery, has been ahead of the game.

The prekindergartens Masse runs offer evaluations on when children reach certain milestones, which can be shown to pediatricians. Duquette said Avery is always ahead of where she normally would be, and already knows her numbers and alphabet.

“We didn’t foresee any of the things that (Masse) was going to come up with,” Duquette said. “But as we have progressed, I have seen the benefits. Even before, looking at schools and day cares, I was skeptical about sending her somewhere that she doesn’t get direct instruction. But now I have seen it through and seen the growth, and I think it’s amazing.”

As a French teacher at Waterville Senior High School, Duquette was used to the structure of a public school, and enrolled Avery at the Waterville Hungry Caterpillar location before the alternative method was introduced.

With her background in public education, Duquette said she was not worried about her daughter’s ability to transition into public schools.

“Even with the nature-based approach, they are integrating all of the curriculum students would have to learn about,” Duquette said. “They’ll bring things in about plants and animals, and then they start integrating science and counting. Everything is brought together in a whole as opposed to separating each topic.”

Duquette said she has adopted some of Masse’s learning styles for her French classes, such as making the classroom a cozy environment that enhances learning.

The Curious Caterpillars Learning Center in Augusta is scheduled to open Monday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GRAND OPENING IN AUGUSTA

Masse said people have traveled good distances to attend her two learning centers. People find out about them mostly by word of mouth, she said.

She realizes nontraditional learning styles may not be suited to every child or adult.

“They have to be the type of person that wants this type of education, and it’s OK if they are not,” Masse said. “It’s OK if you just want your child to go to child care. Not everyone has the desire to go to a more specific style, and I’m OK with that. I think that it’s wrong to think that anyone is above and beyond other types of learning.”

Masse said she chose the Augusta location to give parents more options, especially since people in the Waterville area were traveling to attend the center.

Infants to children ready for kindergarten are accepted into the center and rates are structured in part around the area. However, at the Waterville center, infants were $250 a week and pre kindergartners and toddlers $210 a week.

Masse said she and her husband are looking to enroll 50 children. Each teacher at the center has a degree or is working toward a degree in child development.

DellaMattera advised parents looking for child care options to recognize how their children learn and to incorporate that into the search.

“You want a place that matches your beliefs and what your children want,” she said. “Some kids are happy to sit and color, and other kids need to run around. None are wrong. They just need someone to honor that.”

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