Kids need to play and, according to the Lawrence Art Center, playing can be the best way for a child to learn. For decades, the Arts Center's arts-based preschool has been teaching children from ages three to five how to dance, paint, sing, and learn, while having fun.

“It’s a sort of free reign structure,” said Gracie Rinke, a sophomore studying graphic design. “We let the children learn by experiencing the world around them and learning through art.”

Rinke has been spending her afternoons, four days a week, with the preschool program since September and spent last summer working with the school’s summer camp. It has become such an integral part of her life that she schedules her University courses around working at the preschool.

“My family has always been involved in some way or another with the program,” Rinke said. “My brother and I even went there ourselves when we were younger. We have all kinds of artwork souvenirs from our time here in our basement and it feels good to be working somewhere that made me happy.”

Rinke said that despite being a teacher's aide, she’s also learned a thing or two while working at the preschool.

“I think working here has given me a sort of edge,” Rinke said. “I’ve learned so much about childhood development, how to manage interactions among teachers, students, parents, and the administration, and not to mention that fact that I get to teach and be around art all the time. It really aligns perfectly with my major.”

Though Rinke said that no matter what she does after graduating, she knows that she’ll always have a special connection with the Lawrence Art Center preschool.

“I don’t know where I will be or what I’ll be doing, but I hope that if I ever come back to Lawrence that I’ll be able to work with the preschool again,” Rinke said.

Someone who left Lawrence and did return to work at the preschool is Erin McElroy, a 2009 graduate who moved back to Lawrence when her husband decided to earn his Master's at Emporia.

“I saw on Facebook two years ago that the preschool was looking for some new hires and I was very interested,” McElroy said.

McElroy said she became “burned out” after earning her Master’s from the University of Georgia in scenography, and teaching at the preschool sounded promising.

“We make a real difference here,” McElroy said. “There have been studies that suggest that children who go to a more structured 'sit down' preschool will actually be behind by the time they reach second grade while children who go to preschools like ours are far above in reading, math, and social interaction.”

McElroy said the children learn best when they're learning from themselves and the instructors are there to provide an environment that induces that learning.

“Being at the Arts Center, we have so many resources at our disposal,” McElroy said. “We’ve had potters, dancers, and just recently we had a resident print artist show the kids what print art is.”

Rinke said that her favorite part about being an aide is being able to watch the children whenever they’re experiencing something new for the first time.

“We have kids for a couple years and it’s amazing to watch them grow and experience the world around them through art,” Rinke said. “There’s so much that a child can learn from art and I’m so happy that I can be a part of it.”

— Edited by Garrett Long

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