- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - It’s time to eat at So Social LLC, a drop-in, Montessori-inspired child care center on 6th Avenue. A bell rings. The tiny children, mostly toddlers, look up expectantly. They know what to do next.

They head over to the reachable drawer where they get their own placemats and tiny cups, which are not sippy cups. They carry them to a 13-inch-tall table and set them down at their place. Then they go back, and each gets a saucer and a spoon. They take turns washing hands, and then the two teachers serve up beans, cornbread and some cut-up veggies and fruit, telling the children they’re free to try the foods and whatever they don’t want, they’re free to leave on their plates.

The room gets quiet as the children taste the foods. When they’re finished, they carry their plates to the dirty dish bin. One toddler accidentally dumps his on the floor. “Oops,” he says. But it’s no big deal. He helps clean it up.

Though some are too young to even speak very much, they’re not at all too young to learn practical life skills, said Tia Fix Rumbaugh, the founder and lead teacher of the center.

“All they want to do at this age is what we do, and to have that feeling of accomplishment,” she said. “By giving them an opportunity to take on this responsibility, they’ll go for it.”

She opened her center in Huntington in 2014 after spending some years in Asia being trained in Montessori-inspired education and establishing Montessori programs there.

The system was founded more than 100 years ago by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, who researched children and developed an education program that involved offering children an environment that encourages their innate desire to learn. It includes specific toys that are challenging, engaging and that allow children to achieve mastery of new skills on their own. A block tower, cylinder puzzles with knobs, counting rods and paper letters are among the toys that have been specifically designed to help young children up to age 3 achieve a variety of skills.

So Social is filled with low-to-the-ground toys of this nature, as well as books, small brooms and mops, and even low mirrors in which they can see themselves and which they can clean with a squeegee and water.

“Our environment encourages a sense of entrepreneurial spirit,” Rumbaugh said. “They choose their own work, and work at it at their own pace. We try not to interfere.”

They might be building a tower, counting rods or making art. Regardless of what they’re doing, the teachers try to let them accomplish it on their own.

Rumbaugh said she has often made the point that if one came across Vincent van Gogh painting “The Starry Night,” it wouldn’t be appropriate to give him pointers. Just let him make his masterpiece. It’s the same with children, she said.

“We sit back, watch and observe, and treat them like a master working on a masterpiece,” she said. “They have a self-directed, biological need to learn. … At this age, it’s not about beautiful artwork (or excellence at whatever they’re doing). It’s about exploration.”

Early childhood education was not something she had originally set out to do.

Rumbaugh, the daughter of Donna and Jim Rumbaugh of Huntington, graduated from Ceredo-Kenova High School in 1996 and then earned a degree in speech and interpersonal communications from New York University before beginning a career in public relations and online advertising in New York City. She stayed there for 10 years before deciding she wanted to try something entirely new.

Eventually, after learning about it through a friend, she decided to teach English in Korea.

“When I went to Korea, I fell in love with teaching,” she said.

She eventually found herself in China undergoing Montessori training through Eton International in Beijing. She then was asked to help develop a feeder program for its kindergarten campuses. She created a program that was a scaled-down traditional Montessori classroom. It was a 90-minute version of a Montessori experience.

Rumbaugh was trained under Charmaine Soh, president at the Association of Chinese Montessori International, and Marlene Barron, chief academic officer for Etonkids Educational Group and director of Etonkids Montessori Teacher Training Academy.

After working in Beijing, she was asked to helped set up a trilingual school, the Montessori Academy, in Bangkok, Thailand.

“When you travel around, you stumble upon fantastic individuals from all walks of life. It’s inspiring,” she said.

Rumbaugh came back to Huntington and had her children, Emmaleah Rumbaugh, 4, and James Stump, 3. Rumbaugh and her husband, Japheth Stump, bought their house at 529 6th Ave. in 2012, and opened the business in the downstairs a few years later.

Before opening the center, Rumbaugh offered a Mommy and Me program at Central United Methodist Church in the West End, all while trying to gauge if there was demand for a Montessori-inspired child care center in Huntington. Although there is a Montessori school in Charleston, she was unaware of whether Huntington parents would be interested.

She found that there was a demand and is now busy with her drop-in child care program, in which some children are regulars and some children are occasional guests at the center. It is open 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and her fellow teachers are Jessie Maynard and Katie Bonnell.

She also invites parents to come and visit with their children, just to watch them explore the environment. The center is geared toward children up to 3 years old, but she has had children stay who are up to 6.

“The Montessori (training) changed the way I looked at the importance of the learning environment for children under 6,” Rumbaugh said. “I would love to see more of this in our area. It’s exceptionally beneficial.”

Also, So Social welcomes groups that focus on parenting, families and children to gather there for meetings and classes. Rumbaugh hopes to provide a parenting hub of sorts for families that need space free of charge. The center has hosted everything from support groups to children’s yoga classes to kids’ science programs.

In 2017, Rumbaugh hopes things fall into place so she can expand from having a maximum of six children to having a maximum of 12 children at a time. Also she has received grants from Try This West Virginia and the Cabell Huntington Hospital Foundation to develop the outdoor environment at the center with a garden and natural play area called “Children on the Green.”

Her long-term dream is for Huntington to offer a combined Montessori-inspired drop-in center and children’s museum. She would love to find the right real estate or location to lease for such a project.

“The big thing is to look for partners and volunteers who really want to create something beautiful for our area,” she said. “I have dreams. I have to work at it a little bit at a time. Every day, we take a few steps.”

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Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, https://www.herald-dispatch.com

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