Vassar Today

Celebrating Children

By Samantha Soper '91

Over the past 75 years, hundreds of children, educators, and Vassar students have passed through the majestic English manor-style building that is the Wimpfheimer Nursery School. They have been there to interact, to observe, and to be educated.

Each semester 23 students work with the 60 nursery-school children that attend Wimpfheimer, ages two to six. In addition, students from courses as varied as “Language and Gender” (anthropology) to “The Fairy Tale” (education) to “Early Childhood Development” (psychology) to “Prejudice, Racism, and Social Policy” (Africana studies/urban studies) use the Wimpfheimer facility to research topics. Julie Riess ’82, director of Wimpfheimer and lecturer in the departments of education and psychology, juggles the tasks of maintaining the school’s mission as a laboratory school and planning the programs for the children themselves. As a laboratory school, Wimpfheimer is a “primary source” for students and faculty to learn about childhood development. And the faculty, students, and staff who work there provide parents with access to a wide breadth of knowledge about child development and parenting.

“There are a large number of Vassar alumnae/i who feel grateful to have been trained at the Wimpfheimer Nursery School, both because it provided a wonderful launching pad for a rewarding career and because it taught us how the real world should be for our children and for every child,” remarked Ann Shimkin Segal ’64 in the Fall 1994 VQ. Segal is not alone in having pride in the school’s accomplishments.

“The work that the women and men at Wimpfheimer put into creating a rich, productive environment for children to live, learn, and play — while creating a top-notch research facility with minimal intrusion into the lives of those participating — is beyond praise or appreciation,” said Matt Siemionko ’04, a psychology major. Siemionko has been working at Wimpfheimer since arriving at Vassar, taking classes in developmental psychology, undertaking an independent research project, and serving as an intern in the Developmental Research Methods Labs. “I remember halfway through my first semester of sophomore year when I was familiarizing myself with the children and two of them asked me to play on the swing set,” he recalled. “They then proceeded to tell me that my hat was ‘funny-looking’ and that I was ‘too tall.’ I’ve always liked my hat, but being 6'4" I figured they might have something with the ‘too-tall’ comment. I got a real kick out of the fact that they had no problem letting me know what they were thinking. I was also surprised at how comfortable they were asking me to play.”


Child study major Jane Stoll Angell ‘42 with a youngster at the Wimpfheimer Nursery School

For Jennifer Thomas Birckmayer ’54, memories focus around Joseph Stone, the former Vassar professor of child study who was instrumental in Wimpfheimer’s growth and prestige as a national laboratory school, particularly its involvement in the national Head Start Program in the early 1960s. Birckmayer worked with the two-year-olds at Wimpfheimer and noticed Stone coming there for lunch every day. She still vividly recalls a scene between a little boy and Stone. The boy, whose mother was a teacher, “was leaning over, inspecting his pants,” she recounted. “When [Stone] asked what he was doing, the boy replied that he had a hole in his pants and his mommy hadn’t fixed it yet. Joe Stone sat back and said seriously, but casually, that the boy’s mommy was a very busy lady, but he was sure she would take care of it when she could. As a student, this was my introduction to the real binds of being a working mother.”

After two semesters working at the nursery school, Birckmayer and Carla Linscheid Lerman ’54 were, at the recommendation of the Child Study Department, given the opportunity to set up a day-care center at the Children’s Home in Poughkeepsie. This unique experience was “awe-inspiring” for Birckmayer. Building on this exposure, she continued with her interest in child studies. At Cornell University, she completed a master’s degree in child development and became a teacher and director of the Cornell Nursery School. She now works part-time for the university in parent education. With her professional experience at Wimpfheimer and Cornell and her personal experience of being a mother of four, Birckmayer strongly believes that an institution like Wimpfheimer provides the best kind of experience for children. It’s a place where “children benefit enormously from endless amounts of adult attention.”

At the celebration honoring Wimpfheimer’s 75 years this past fall, Director Riess acknowledged all those who have been a part of the nursery school — including faculty, administrators, students, and parents — stating, “Without you, we are just a single school in a single building on campus. With you, we are a network, a laboratory community without walls. Our enrollment is not simply a headcount of those within our schools, but a ripple effect in a large educational pond.”