PANORAMA - New Learning Center opens in Walla Walla

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Foregoing the rocking chair for the open floor, Elizabeth Razo reads to son Isaac after they chose a book, from selections at the Learning Center.

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Displaying the first levels of her unique signature in life – just without the writing – 2-year-old Teaghan McNeil shows the vibrancy and individuality of the lines in her palm during a hand-stamping session at the Learning Center.

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Elizabeth Razo and son Isaac choose a book from the selections at the Learning Center.

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The early morning sun casts long shadows on the new day as Karrie Northrop, right, walks with her children Ali, 4, and Sylvia, 2, to class at the Learning Center.

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After snacks, half the attending parents gather away from the kids to meet with instructor Michelle Reiff, left, and discuss parenting issues in a quiet, less-hectic environment.

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Tot Spot class instructor Michelle Reiff leads children and adults through an active swirl of movement and song during a circle session of dance and play at the Learning Center.

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Tot Spot class instructor Michelle Reiff slowly and quietly winds things down for the next phase of the morning.

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Jennifer Brooks gives her paint-spotted son, Braeden McCauley, a helping hand at the easel.

WALLA WALLA - A new Learning Center for the area's youngest children has officially opened its doors, and its first customers have been at work exploring, playing and learning within its walls.

An expansion of a Tot Spot class offered at Pioneer United Methodist Church marked the start of the Learning Center's programs, with almost two dozen children ages birth to 5 signed up, along with their parents or caregivers. For two hours a day, two days a week, the children and grown-ups get free range of the center, which offers a variety of toys and explorations in a playroom setting.

A community space to serve area children was the chosen project of the Sherwood Trust Community Leadership Program class of 2009. Members were tasked with finding an adequate spot, furnishing the room with appropriate toys and stations, and helping redesign and furnish the room to meet children's needs.

The current Tot Spot class is the first program at the center, located at 720 Sprague Ave., and a second session of the free classes starts in mid-July. With time, the space is expected to offer more free programs to serve local families.

"It helps to have free programs in the summer time," said Lucinda Victorio, 21, mother of Nathaneal, 13 months, who was crawling toward a toy truck. Later, while her husband David sat in a parent education session part of the Tot Spot class, mother and son curled up on the floor to flip through several books.

The room was designed with children in mind, particularly children 3 to 5 years old, or of preschool age, although the Tot Spot class is also open to younger children.

The art easels, sensory table, books and assorted toys specifically encourage children to explore and refine their fine and gross motor skills through play.

"We try to have out developmentally appropriate toys, like painting, and play dough," said Michelle Reiff, instructor of the Tot Spot class, describing the start of each class.

At one of two art easels, 5-year-old Elysse Navarrete coated a blank sheet of paper with gold, bronze and silver paint, taking up the entire page.

Her grandmother, Becky Cruz, helped Elysse write her name on the paper before starting.

Cruz said her granddaughter, who starts kindergarten in the fall, was enjoying the class and looked forward to it.

"Today she said, ‘hurry up, I'm going to be late for school,'" Cruz said.

For Cruz, who has cared for Elysse since she was born, the free class was also ideal because it is open to not just parents, but caregivers like herself.

Each class period includes a light snack, which on this day is goldfish crackers and water. During snack, half of the parents leave with Reiff for a brief discussion on a parenting topic.

"We are talking about understanding children's behavior," Reiff said about this particular day's lesson.

"We give them input, and have a time for them to give input," she said.

Including parents and caregivers is part of the Tot Spot class, and also a key objective of the Learning Center.

"Parents are the child's first and most important teacher," said Samantha Bowen, program manager for the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition. "These classes encourage positive interaction and build relationships."

Bowen, who was also part of the Sherwood Leadership class, said the structure of the class benefits children and parents alike.

Maria Romero attends with her two grandchildren, 10-month-old Yahariee and 3-year-old Dominick during the class.

"They get bored at home," Romero said, speaking in Spanish. That boredom was not apparent as Dominick worked on several puzzles, while Yahariee finished a snack and bottle.

"When this is finished, they don't want to leave," Romero said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at 509-526-8317 or mariagonzalez@wwub.com.

About the Learning Center:

Located at The Center at the Park, 720 Sprague Ave., the current Tot Spot session runs through July 14. A second session will run from July 19-Aug. 11. It meets Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and is free and open to children birth to 5 years old and their parents or caregivers, who must attend the class. Each child receives a free book by the end. To sign up, call 509-527-4237.

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