Amy Spain Makes Learning Fun
Centralia College Professor Amy Spain is serious about play. Throughout her career, she has explored the correlation between learning and play that’s essential in early childhood – and throughout life.
When Early Childhood Education students walk into Spain’s classroom, they often laugh at what they find. “We’ve got children’s books, arts and crafts, playdough and more,” she said. “We use them to teach curriculum like science and math. Children learn best through play; play is their work.”
Spain’s teaching style helps her students become skilled educators. Her pupils range in age from two- to 80-years-old. “You could say I’ve kind of dabbled in education for the last 14 years,” she said with a laugh.
The Education of an Educator
Spain attended Texas State University, where she originally planned to study horticulture. However, one inspirational professor convinced her to pursue a career in agricultural education.
After earning her Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture, she taught pre-k and kindergarten at a private school in Idaho. Next, she moved on to Lower Columbia College, where she taught adult basic math, early childhood, and I-BEST. “I just kept adding things as people asked me to pick up courses – wherever I could fill a niche,” she said.
She went on to earn her Master's of Curriculum Instruction with minors in Early Childhood and Math from Concordia University. It was a busy time. “I always laugh when my students tell me how hard school is,” she said. “I had an infant and kindergartener, my job, and classes – and my husband was getting his bachelor’s at the same time. I learned to get up early to read and to grade papers in the middle of the night when I was up feeding the infant. I tell my students, ‘It’s hard but you can do this!’”
Spain came to Centralia College at the encouragement of her professional peers. Today, her primary function is as faculty for the Early Childhood Education department and education courses. “I also advise all the early childhood students and last year I wrote most of the bachelor’s program,” she said.
She also recently became point of contact for the Early Achievers Program, which helps individuals working with early learners obtain higher education funding. “This year we’ve helped 20-something people,” Spain said.
Getting It Right From the Start
When it comes to educating young children, having highly educated staff is essential. “We’re not babysitters,” Spain said. “You’re paying someone to provide quality care to your child with extended learning experiences. In some cases, children are in care up to 10 hours a day. Their entire waking day is spent there.”
Studies show that the higher a caregiver’s education, the more words they use with young children – and the more complex those words are. Children who are intentionally cultivated by more highly educated caregivers obtain significantly higher vocabulary and comprehension before they even set foot in a classroom. These skills are directly correlated to later scholastic success at all grade levels.
“You talk to infants,” Spain emphasized. “You talk all the time. You tell them what you’re doing. ‘I’m picking you up now. Now teacher’s picking up your toys. We’re going to change your diaper.’ If you can talk at the end of the day, you haven’t talked enough.”
Spain’s work educating educators helps build a solid foundation for young children in our community – and she does it all through play. Even something simple like making a snack by following a recipe has positive educational outcomes. “Sometimes people say, ‘Must be nice to have time to play with paint in your classes,’” Spain said with a smile. “I tell them, ‘You’d be amazed what you can get your students to do if you make time for fun stuff.’”
This approach is remarkably effective. Take for example, a basic foundational skill like literacy. “Literacy is in everything you do,” Spain said. “We talk all day long and ask questions. Then there’s mechanical skills like playdough or tweezer activities that develop fine motor skills. We have to build these muscles before writing can ever happen.”
There’s a Lid for Every Pot
Spain’s students practice their skills in the College’s Child Lab School, two ECEAP preschool classrooms, and the cooperative preschool in Morton. Here they learn from experienced teachers who are already working in the field. “They can see them in action,” Spain said. “We also have them step outside our facilities and see what other people are doing. This helps them figure out what they want to do.”
One of Spain’s favorite parts of the job is watching her students go on to apply the skills they’ve learned in a professional setting. “I’ve had a couple students come back from interviews and say, ‘The center I was in was doing exactly what we were talking about in class, like differentiated learning and small group math concepts,’” Spain said.
Sometimes, finding the right job takes time. Spain encourages her students to keep trying. “The biggest hurdle of my career was getting a full-time job when we moved to Washington,” she said. “I started subbing in Longview the same year they riffed so many teachers. The mills and industry had closed and people had moved out. I had a hard time getting my foot in the door.”
But her persistence paid off, which is what she emphasizes to her students. “When I got hired at LCC, it was the third time I applied,” she said. “Once I got my foot in the door, it all came together. I tell my students quite often that sometimes it’s hard and sometimes you don’t always get the position you want. Sometimes you work two jobs while you wait for full-time work. You do what you have to do to get the experience you need. Once you get that experience, the right position opens – even a tenured position.”
Spain made tenure at Centralia College in April 2019. She’s pleased to have earned this milestone and grateful for the reliability it signifies. “I come from a system where every year you wondered if you were coming back,” she said. “I’m excited I finally made it.”