Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

South Austin preschool doesn't make children learn their ABCs

Susan Notes: Unstructured approach helps kids deal with aggression, parents say.

"My kids were well prepared for kindergarten even though they hadn't had a curriculum that helped them learn to count," Empson said.

It is good to see a school that practices the principle that important skills are in the play, not in workbook drills.

By Claire Osborn

"I was a little freaked out at first because it was different," said D'Amico, a communications director for the Texas Federation of Teachers.

The South Austin preschool on Manchaca Road, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, calls itself a "Natural Childlife Preserve."

It doesn't make children sit down and learn their ABCs or separate them into different classes or even say "please" or "thank you," said Andrew Urbanus, the school's director.

Children ages 18 months to 4 years spend as much time as possible outdoors in a huge backyard filled with swing sets, sand piles, playhouses and toys learning how to get along with each other, Urbanus said.

"We want them to have a chance to deal with the uglier side of life, to learn to channel their aggression," he said.

If children can learn how to talk to each other, or even yell when they're upset, then there will be less biting and hitting, he said. Teachers constantly watch over the students and help them talk to each other when fights begin, he said.

"This is not just chaotic baby-sitting; there's a purpose here," Urbanus said.

Children are allowed to cover their bodies with washable paint, run around in their underwear and walk barefoot over the sand-covered outdoor play area.

The preschool was started by Dottie Herschmann, a West Texas Baptist who is now teaching at a high school school in Florida, Urbanus said. He said no child has been kicked out of Habibi's, which means "beloved one" in Arabic.

As he spoke one sunny January afternoon, Urbanus separated two boys who were starting to fight in the backyard. One boy yelled at the other, "I don't like it when you hit me!"

A few days later, teacher Carlos Romero sat with children playing with clay and then rushed over to the swing set, where one boy was crying because he couldn't get another child to get off a swing.

"You could ask him if he'll get off," Romero said.

The boy continued crying, and Romero stayed with him.

"Sometimes it's hard waiting for your turn," Romero said.

A parent, Karen Peoples, arrived a few minutes later to pick up her son, who was running around with other children.

He has learned different ways of dealing with anger from the male teachers at the preschool, Peoples said: "He gets to see that men can problem-solve without raising their voices or yelling."

Adina Chiro-Gianis, an attorney and parent, said she likes the fact that the preschool throws disco parties for the children.

"I get a really good feeling being here," Chiro-Gianis said.

Children are safe in this environment because there is one staff member per every seven children, Urbanus said.

There also is not much equipment they can climb and fall from, he said.

More than 60 children are enrolled at the school. The young students perform their own plays and have cooking classes with items such as pasta, salad and banana bread on the menu once a week. There is a two-hour nap time every day.

Susan Empson, an associate math professor at the University of Texas, said her children attended Habibi's Hutch 10 years ago.

"My kids were well prepared for kindergarten even though they hadn't had a curriculum that helped them learn to count," Empson said.

D'Amico's son thrived so much at Habibi's that now his daughter goes there also, he said. He has learned to appreciate the school's approach to learning: "You should see the kids jumping in mud puddles on a rainy day."


— Claire Osborn
Austin American-Statesman


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.