Annette Muse '76 takes early childhood education outside the box with a nature-oriented play space
By Marge Perko
The trees are full of children at the new outdoor play space that opened June 2015 at the Orfalea Family Children’s Center (OFCC) on the west side of the UC Santa Barbara campus.
“Curiosity and delight abound in the new play yards,” said UCSB Associate Director of Development Rachel Johnston `11. “It fills up my heart to spend five minutes watching the kids interact with the world – whether they are chasing the class bunny rabbit or showing me the fairy garden they built. These children are being offered an unparalleled beginning – and I consider it an honor to support that goal.”
Johnston helped raise funds to create a play yard space conforming to safety requirements and a long-term vision for nature-oriented education. The project, funded by private philanthropy, took years of careful planning with the OFCC’s previous director Leslie Voss.
“The Play Yards Project design was guided by experienced staff, teachers and experts as a marriage of pioneering child development practices and a deep understanding of what delights and nurtures the young spirit,” she said. “The design and approval phase lasted more than a year, but actual construction happened fairly quickly – it took about six months. We are very grateful to the individuals and foundations that helped to make the magic and wonder of childhood tangible through their support.”
A NEW SPACE TO GROW
The outdoor space integrates safety features with local plants and sustainable landscaping practices from Kimberly True’s firm True Nature Landscape Architecture, a nature mural by alum artist Brandon Sonntag Borgia `93 and a fun, interactive play structure.
“So many children don’t have access to outdoor spaces,” said new Center Director Annette Muse `76, an early childhood education leader and teacher with 30 years of experience in classrooms and administration. “So being able to provide them with this place, in a safe manner, on an everyday basis is important. The big push in early childhood education is to get kids back outdoors and connected with nature and to see themselves as stewards of the environment – whether it be in this new play space or through our partnership with the Edible Campus Project. It’s very exciting for not just the kids, but for us as educators as well.”
The collaboration with the Edible Campus Project is just one example of how the Children’s Center partners with programs on the main UCSB campus. Through generous funding from the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, a graduate student from GGSE has been hired to help OFCC teachers and children engage in a gardening curriculum. “In preparation for a time when on-site compositing is a possibility, the Centers have been collaborating with the Department of Public Worms to design a worm bin that is accessible to the children,” said Johnston.
Preschool classrooms will be able to take field trips to greenhouses, gardens and a student-run farm on the main campus. The OFCC also partners with the UCSB Department of Education and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.
Muse took over from Voss as OFCC acting director in July of 2016. A veteran teacher and education administrator, she graduated with a degree in psychology from UCSB and went on to earn her master’s in education from the University of San Francisco.
She began her teaching career in special education at the San Francisco Unified School District. “I worked with children that would now be considered on the spectrum,” she recalled. “But in the late seventies, full inclusion was a new concept and had just been recently mandated as law. The public did not embrace mainstreaming students with special needs. It was extremely difficult as a new and young teacher to be a part of a system that resisted providing inclusion services for children.”
After years of being frustrated with a system that did not fully address the needs of all types of students, Muse started her own school. “Because I had Montessori training as well as special education training, my school was initially a Montessori school – and I always saved a couple of spaces for children for special needs,” she said. “I poured my heart and soul into the school and sold it after 21 years.”
With over three decades spent as a teacher and education leader, Muse brings experience and empathy for her fellow educators to her new role at the Orfalea Family Children’s Center.
“As a director, I want to give voice to and unleash the passions of my teachers,” she said. “I want to help them understand that the heart of their experience is nurturing collaborative partnerships with families. And most of all, help them recognize their enormous potential as advocates for social change. I still find inspiration and direction in my early vision of early childhood education as a service that nourishes children and supports parents and educators in the complexity and importance of their work.”
Early Childhood Care and Education Services at UCSB includes the Orfalea Family Children’s Center and University Children’s Center. Both sites provide services for over 200 infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The Center serves community families, UCSB student parents, staff and faculty.
Muse directs a team of 45 staff and 125 UCSB undergraduate students who serve as teaching assistants each quarter. UCSB students also serve as peer mentors, volunteers and conduct research and observations for coursework at the Center. “I see this role as not only including the skills of administration, business and finance, supervision and human relations, but also of dreaming, designing, organizing and improvising,” she said. “These speak to my soul.”
IT TAKES A COMMUNITY
Currently, the Center’s teachers, UCSB parent student subsidies and operations are funded by Associated Students fees, the Orfalea Foundation, the Chancellor’s Child Care Scholarship Fund, the California Department of Education, and grants from the Santa Barbara Foundation, BSAS, TGFI, First 5 and SFAC.
But there are always new avenues for UCSB alumni and local community members to be involved. “We are raising funds to enhance the edible education portion of the children’s curriculum,” said Johnston. “With reinforced fencing to keep pests out of the yards, there will be more opportunity for the children to grow fruits and vegetables and to implement on-site composting. There are also opportunities to support scholarships for low-income families, to ensure that children from a diverse set of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds can play and learn together during these critical stages of development.”
Muse hopes to increase the Center’s career staff and to foster more improvements to classrooms and facilities. Another project on the horizon is to create a scholarship for the children of OFCC teachers. “For families that qualify as low-income, the cost of childcare can be preclusive,” she said. “It is important to me to find a viable scholarship option to support our teachers that spend their days guiding children in wonder and discovery, so that their own children can be enrolled in the UCSB Children’s Centers. In doing so, our teacher retention rates will increase – which will undoubtedly elevate the quality of the program all around.”
Above all, this UCSB alum hopes to continue to build on a long legacy of collaboration between her staff, her students, families, the local community and the University – all working together toward a future always filled with the laughter and the joy of learning.
“I see myself as a developer of a community of learners – and I hope that my leadership will extend beyond managing an early childhood program,” said Muse. “I hope I can create a culture of safety and respect, alive with possibilities – a program that will attract teachers and families longing to be involved in this community of learners. I want to ensure that children have a childhood full of play, adventure and investigation. I hope to create a community where the adults and children experience a sense of connection and new possibilities for making the world a better place.”