While a dozen 3-year-olds climb on the sensory playground at Emerson Academy, several others take turns petting and holding baby goats. The scene is one of several daily outdoor times and part of a goal to introduce children of all abilities to real-world experiences.
Since opening in October 2007, the nonprofit academy remains the only child development center in Williamson County open to all children, from those who are above average to typically developing to those who have special needs, said Co-Founder and Executive Director Sarah Johnson, a former special education teacher. She said she was inspired to open the center after working with a boy with autism and seeing his family struggle to find a preschool for him.
“Many day cares are actually violating [the Americans with Disabilities Act] by refusing children with disabilities,” Johnson said. “We wanted to open a program that welcomes everyone.”
Administrative assistant Christina Cranor said mixed-ability classrooms have several benefits.
“Typically developing children can also see kids of all abilities and understand differences better,” she said. “They understand that everyone learns differently, so there isn’t jealousy if someone gets to sit in a special chair or something.”
Located in southeast Round Rock, the academy offers preschool and after-school programs for children ages 6 weeks to 14 years. Program Director Crystal Oliver said every day is different, but the preschool typically incorporates classroom time, several outdoor times and a music program.
The outdoor times include gardening and time with several small farm animals. Oliver said the animals are therapeutic for many children, and some therapists work with the animals to help children learn speech or social skills.
“We work with occupational therapists, speech therapists, [applied behavior analysis] therapists and music therapists,” Oliver said. “We can make changes to help kids stay in our program.”
Emerson Academy has several animals on its premises for play and therapy. There are 11 goats, three pigs, one dog, one rabbit, one fat-tailed gecko, one cat and one bearded dragon. Past pets have included parakeets, hamsters and fish. The animals provide real-world experiences for children and can help teach interactive skills.
1 Valley View Drive, Round Rock
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-6 p.m.