Early learning an opportunity for joy

Forming our Future
By Jennifer Henry
“Announce the Good News! Read the sign of the times.” These are the words of Sister Paula Blouin, SSND, director of Madison Assisi Early Learning Center, and trailblazer in early childhood education in the Diocese of Jackson. “There is a tremendous need for quality childcare. Young families are looking for a loving, safe, educational and nurturing environment for their children. Mothers and fathers want to feel good about leaving their children,” added Sister Blouin.
There are three early learning centers now in the Diocese of Jackson:  Assisi Early Learning Center, Natchez Holy Family Early Learning Center and Flowood St. Paul Early Learning Center.  Sister Blouin opened Assisi Early Learning Center in 1987 answering a need for early childhood education. She built a center that is a model for the rest of the diocese. Three years later she helped Father Edward Balser, pastor of St. Paul Parish, open St. Paul Early Learning Center. Holy Family is the oldest in the group. The parish was first established in 1890.
Sister Blouin warmly welcomes visitors to her center and has willingly and generously helped many parishes explore the possibility of establishing early learning centers in Mississippi. Sister believes there is a great need for early childhood education. “We don’t just babysit. We are more than a daycare,” she explained. She is like the foundress of her order, Blessed Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger,  a revolutionary and exceptional educator who sent her sisters into communities where they taught girls who would have otherwise been deprived of an adequate education. Gerhardinger is quoted as saying, “The love of Jesus sees into the future.”
Research about early learning is filled with optimism about the possibilities of shaping children’s academic success through early intervention. We know how important it is to talk to babies, to read to them. This contributes to a child’s academic success. Sister Blouin says that it is a well-known fact that 50 percent of values and morals are formed by five years of age. The early years are a crucial time for children to grow in mind, body and spirit.
Catholic educators are particularly privileged  at early learning centers to observe and share in the development of the spiritual growth of children.  At St. Paul Early Learning Center, we have begun using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program  where the mystery of God meets the mystery of the child. This program teaches young children about the covenant relationship with God. “I have called you by name, you are mine….Because you are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you,” (Isaiah 43:1, 4).
Gianna Gobbi, Maria Montessori and Sofia Cavelletti, all pioneers in early childhood education, each played important roles in creating the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Their work designed a curriculum where children could develop concentration, order, grace and courtesy, care of self and the environment. The children are surrounded by a prepared environment, the atrium, that is simple, beautiful, neat, organized and authentic. The materials allow children opportunities to use their multiple intelligences. As Montessori said, “The hand is the avenue to the brain.”
The Good Shepherd program is rooted in scripture and liturgy. The children learn to live the life of the liturgy in the atrium. They listen to scripture, meditate on the stories and wonder. The work in the atrium helps the children build that relationship with Jesus that He initiates so we may have life to the full and joy.
Joy! It is what children bring to us so innocently, lovingly and generously. Pope Francis has called us as God’s people to live the joy of the Gospel. Early childhood centers are certainly a ministry of the church that create multiple ways of meeting the needs of parents and children. There is good news to share about the Early Learning Centers in the Diocese of Jackson.
Like Sister Blouin, hopefully more parishes will respond to the sign of the times and embrace the most important instruction at the most crucial time in our children’s lives.  As Jesus said, “let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” (Matthew 19: 14).
(Jennifer Henry is the director of the Early Childhood Learning Center at Flowood St. Paul Parish.)