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A 90-Year Milestone at the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory

Young children play on the porch of the original UT Lab School in 1928

On this morning, newspaper headlines herald Ma Ferguson's last days in the Texas capitol, Charles Lindbergh's plans to bypass the Atlantic by air, and Charlie Chaplin's divorce and tax evasion woes.

It is January 17, 1927—the first day that young children cross the threshold into a new nursery school developed by Mary Gearing, the dynamic chair of the Department of Home Economics at The University of Texas at Austin. Gearing had an interest in child development and had lobbied for $10,000 in seed money from the Texas Public Health Association to start the school.

The new school was the first nursery school in Austin and is now—at 90 years of age—one of the oldest continually operating laboratory schools in the U.S. Laboratory schools are a special breed of early childhood education programs affiliated with universities. These schools provide much more than high-quality care for young children, providing also space for research on early child development and education, allowing university students to see the best teaching practices and witness children's development in context, and serving as a model for parents and the community.

From its inception, the University Nursery School, now the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory (UT Lab School), was designed as a "practice school" for undergraduates studying child development. The first location was the former home of Dr. H.Y. Benedict on the northeast corner of University and 26th (now Dean Keeton). There, students explored the vegetable garden for "pleasurable digging and watering," drove "kiddy-cars" and wagons, manipulated wood with hammers and saws, and built "endless houses and fences" with blocks. Early goals, stated in a 1927 pamphlet, are not dissimilar from the goals today:

  • The study of the child in an environment which is believed to represent a normal child world.
  • The promotion of sound physical and mental health and development.
  • Adaptation to the social group of which the child is a part.

Over nine decades, the UT Lab School has had several name changes, four locations, and at least nine directors. It was among the first schools accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and has maintained this status since 1991.

The initial student population in 1927 was just ten young children; today, six master teachers instruct 112 students in nine classrooms. Master teachers have been on the faculty—teaching undergraduates in human development and family sciences—since the late 1940s, and the growth experienced by the lab school is in keeping with the growth of UT's School of Human Ecology, or home economics. Over nine decades, the number of undergraduates has increased by more than 1500 percent, which means that the number of adults who learn and work at the UT Lab School has increased tremendously. Each year, 600 undergraduates observe children for coursework, and additional students (120 undergraduates and 10 graduate students) work directly in the classrooms. Meanwhile, researchers collect data for up to ten research projects from departments across campus.

And the children still build cities with blocks and water plants in the garden, as part of an integrated early childhood education curriculum that uses developmentally appropriate practices.

The gallery of images contrasts the early years in 1928 with recent photographs taken by Vivian Abagiu from the Seay Building at UT Austin.