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Times of the Islands Magazine

Children’s Education Center of the Islands - The arts on Sanibel

May 19, 2017 07:22AM ● By Kevin

Photo by Jan Holly.

Daisy and Cindy DeCosta mugged for photos after the presentation. Photo by Jan Holly.

Cindy DeCosta, director of the Children’s Education Center of the Islands on Sanibel, has big dreams. “I want art and music to blossom at our Center,” DeCosta says. “The arts are essential to learning.”

DeCosta ticks off a list of the benefits of arts education, including giving children an outlet for creative expression, improving fine motor coordination, and spurring the growth of neurons in the brain. “But most important,” she adds, “is the child’s sense of accomplishment in producing a work of art.”

The Center’s five-acre campus inspires DeCosta’s fertile imagination, conjuring up both an open-air art barn and an amphitheater on the grounds. “Just think,” she says. “Children giving music and dramatic performances, or studying painting, pottery, or fused-glass classes, surrounded by Sanibel’s natural beauty.”

Music and art are already a regular part of the Center’s daily schedule, but the curriculum is comprehensive. Mornings begin with a song and the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by games focusing on math. “The kids work on shape recognition, patterning and sequencing,” DeCosta says. “They develop math skills without knowing it.”

Afternoons are given over to book-reading and language learning―and more music. “The children sing songs in English, Spanish and American Sign Language,” DeCosta says. “The Center’s teachers take full advantage of every moment. Underlying every play activity, including recess, are strong pedagogical fundamentals.”

Island musicians Sean and Abby Allison contribute to DeCosta’s arts enrichment effort. Abby is a pianist and Sean plays saxophone. But every Wednesday, changing hats, they come to the Center armed with ukulele, guitar, African thumb-piano, maracas, drums or accordion. The Allison’s repertoire is American folk song in the style of Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. “We want to expose the children to their folk heritage,” Abby says. “Watching the kids having fun with music is a pleasure. Their joy in music will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

Daisy the pot-bellied pig, Farmer Minor and pugs Lily Pug and Dixie Cup have visited the school. Photo by Jan Holly.

Special guests to the Center abound as well—including a recent visit by Daisy, America’s most famous potbellied pig. Accompanied by Farmer Minor and two pugs, Lily Pug and Dixie Cup, the 8-year-old Daisy extols the virtues of reading. “Daisy brings delight to lots of people,” Farmer Minor says. “She encourages everyone to ‘pig out’ on reading.”

DeCosta has an ambitious to-do list. If she has her way, in the children’s future are a vegetable garden and a certified native butterfly habitat. “Our kids love getting their hands dirty. The gardens teach the importance of native vegetation for their island home,” DeCosta says.

The facility’s grounds already sport banana tree and pineapple gardens, planted by the children. “The gardens put our children in touch with the land,” DeCosta says. “They watch the growth, harvest the fruit—then eat it!” she adds with a smile.

The Center has brought learning to the island’s preschool children for the past 43 years—on a minimalist budget. Revenues go only so far toward the Center’s pressing capital improvement needs. “The floor, original to the buildings, is beyond repair,” DeCosta says, “and we need a new front deck. If we added solar, we could substantially cut our utility bills. We want to be greener,” DeCosta says, wistfully.

Judy Workman, one of the Center’s three founders, believes that the organization has remained successful “because we decided at the very beginning to run it as a cooperative. We charged just enough tuition to meet expenses. The rest of the work was volunteer.”

Workman recalls that the Center was established quickly. “Our initial meeting,” she says, “was in February 1974. Francis Bailey agreed to rent us the old Bailey store for $1/year, if we cleaned it out. So we cleaned and painted the building, and restored the floor. Lots of folks pitched in.

The Center is open to children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Thirty-two children are currently enrolled, taught by five dedicated teachers. The organization, still a nonprofit, is run by parents who also help with maintenance and fund-raising events. Whenever possible, the Center awards scholarships, using monies from the fund-raisers. “We charge tuition on a sliding scale,” DeCosta says. “We don’t want to turn any child away from our doors.”

Islanders Abby and Sean Allison are regular school visitors, sharing a passion for American folk heritage. Photo by Jan Holly.

Details about the Children’s Education Center of the Islands, or to learn how you might help, are at 239-472-4538,

Written by Jan Holly, a writer in Southwest Florida.