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The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) is a separately incorporated 501(c)3 housed at the Smithsonian Institution. The mission of the SEEC is two-fold: to provide a high-quality educational program for young children, and to advance educational opportunities for all children by sharing SEEC’s expertise on a national level, thereby furthering the education mandate of the Smithsonian Institution.
SEEC opened in 1988 with one center located in the National Museum of American History with 32 children, 7 teachers and a budget of about $150,000. In 1991 SEEC added programming for infants and toddlers, and in 1998 a licensed Kindergarten was added. Today SEEC has 3 centers, two inside the walls of the National Museum of Natural History and one inside the National Museum of American History, serving 135 children with 48 staff and a budget of over $2.5 million. In October 2013 SEEC celebrated its 25th anniversary, but from the beginning one thing was clear: this was going to be much more than a place that cared for the children of Smithsonian employees. This was going to be a model laboratory school with a museum-based curriculum; a place that addressed the Smithsonian mandate for sharing knowledge. Early in our history Dee Carlstrom was hired to develop a curriculum, Museum Magic, based on a vision of monthly themes that crossed the entire Smithsonian Institution and utilized resources from throughout the museums. The curriculum continues to serve as a resource even as the school has transitioned to using a more emergent curriculum model. The founding director, Sharon Shaffer, began a set of training initiatives in 1995 when she wrote a Smithson Grant to develop a seminar, Learning Through Objects, to train others in SEEC’s methods. Through this, and several other trainings, the model has been shared with thousands of educators and museum professionals throughout the USA and several countries abroad. Sharon retired in the summer of 2012, after 24 years of service to SEEC, and the current Executive Director, Kim Kiehl assumed the role of Executive Director. In 2014 the Center for Innovation in Early Learning (CIEL) was formed to house the outreach and professional development work being done by SEEC both internally and externally. SEEC continues to develop its curriculum and is moving to the next stages of becoming a national resource for high quality early education and programming for young children in museums.
At SEEC we invite children to be extraordinary, to wonder, and to explore the world around them. We teach children to search for knowledge rather than simply be fed information. We give children the time and space to see the effects of their curiosity and to think richly and deeply about things. Through a combination of hands-on exploration, learning through collections and exhibits, and play, children are able to experience the world in ways that are developmentally appropriate and engaging. Our work supports the latest neuroscience research on brain development in young children and invites children to share and explore their own ideas. We believe that children learn by building upon past knowledge and experience. At SEEC, teachers help young children make meaningful connections between objects that are familiar and unknown objects. For example, in a visit to the Sackler Gallery during a study of clothing, SEEC children may see padukahs, sandals worn by clerics in ancient India. The padukahs, an unfamiliar museum artifact, become familiar when compared to shoes that the children wear. In a visit to African Art, students might view a ceremonial crown and compare this unknown article of clothing with other types of crowns and hats worn for special occasions.
Museum Based Learning
Children at SEEC learn about their world through the richness of the arts. The museums are an integral part of the SEEC program and we believe museums should be an integral part of early learning for every family and in every community. Children are naturally curious, eager to explore and learn about their world. Museums, and other free choice learning sites, across the country offer experiences that encourage children to observe, explore, classify, predict, and experiment. At SEEC, a visit to the Insect Zoo in Natural History provides children with an "up close and personal" look at some of the smaller creatures that share our environment. By visiting the Butterfly Garden adjacent to the Natural History Museum, our young children engage in multi-sensory activities that teach about the interdependent relationships so important in our world. Learning is exciting when children see themselves as scientific investigators. Artists as people, artistic techniques and styles, and various works of art enrich the daily lives of SEEC students. Children might be introduced to Faith Ringgold and her beautiful quilt-like creations when talking about clothing. They come to know Alexander Calder as their friend "Sandy" when they explore mobiles and stabiles and the relationships of these works of art to the concept of balance. They see nature from a new perspective when introduced to Georgia O’Keeffe during conversations on ecology. The children might explore creative movement as a means of communication and become dancers for a moment when viewing Degas’ sculpture of the Little Dancer.
Community as Classroom
At SEEC we believe that education happens best when it moves outside the walls of a classroom and into the surrounding community. For our children this means they have the world’s treasures at the heart of their curriculum. SEEC has developed an innovative curriculum that focuses on learning through objects, collections and exhibits. The curriculum, something we have come to call a "responsive curriculum," combines the best of both theme-based and emergent curriculum planning to organize the children's thinking while allowing for their own interestes to emerge. Children are encouraged to ask questions and to search for answers together. This idea of community is at the heart of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. SEEc Staff and parents work together to create an environment that will inspire and nurture the growth of young children. SEEC also works in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and its many talented professionals; sharing the wonders of the world through their expertise as well as the rich resources of the Smithsonian collections. Partnerships also go beyond the walls of the Smithsonian and include a diverse group of individuals and organizations. SEEC collaborates with museums, schools, professional organizations and universities to share knowledge about museum-based education for young children.
Most children don’t go to school in a museum but at SEEC we believe that every school can be more like a museum. As a model program in museum-based education for young children, the Center for Innovation in Early Learning (CIEL) at SEEC provides leadership within the educational community and extends its expertise through national seminars, conferences, curriculum development and consulting. CIEL supports initiatives that help link schools and museums within communities and that improve the educational experiences of all children. Museums and schools profit from the guidance of experienced SEEC professionals as they work to create innovative programs for young children that reflect the specific needs of their community.