Campus News

Follow the students: McPhaul teacher bases lessons on children’s interests

Phillip Baumgarner teaches 3- and 4-year-olds at the McPhaul Child and Family Development Center. As a trained actor and director

Phillip Baumgarner isn’t an ordinary preschool teacher. 

He’s Mr. Phillip, an early childhood professional at the McPhaul Child and Family Development Center, known for teaching break dancing or painting patterns on fingernails in his class.

 “I take my lead from the kids,” he said. “They tell me what they’re interested in, and, by following their interests, I’m able to bring in other areas for them—math, science, creative arts. That’s how we attack it.”

So when his students were busting moves during class, Mr. Phillip brought in instructional break dancing videos and his preschoolers peer-taught each other Six Step floor spins and Top Rock footwork. He even brought in the UGA Break Dance Club to give a demonstration to his class. 

This year, students are into dinosaurs. The class has visited the giant sloth fossils in the science library, made their own stuffed dinosaur—complete with papier-mâché eggs and a nest of leaves, pine straw and wood chips gathered from the yard. Then the class learned about asteroids and space—and even made their own space suits out of aluminum foil. 

Mr. Phillip’s preschool class of 3- and 4-year-olds isn’t really a traditional preschool class. 

Sure, the class plays musical chairs. Only in Mr. Phillip’s class no one is ever out. The children have to find a way to sit down—on someone’s lap, next to the chair.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Mr. Phillip said. “Usually it ends with a dog pile—a very happy dog pile—at the end.”

Rather than singing We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, one of the more traditional preschool songs, Mr. Phillip takes his class on The Cool Bear Hunt. 

Instead of “the old fashioned walking through the woods, crossing a river, going up a tree, you swim across a peanut butter river. You eat your way across. You take crackers and get to have a snack in the middle of it. You go through a Jell-O swamp, candy factory and there’s some lovely sounds you get to make when you do that,” he said while demonstrating chomping and lip-vibrating sound effects.

Mr. Phillip doesn’t just read books to his 3- and 4-year-olds. No, the trained thespian (he has a master’s in directing) gives a dramatic reading complete with voices and sound effects.

And when he’s done, it’s the children’s turn. He has them act out the books.

“It’s not just my stage. I try to share it,” he said.

And those books he reads to the students—they’re not just picture books, they’re post-modern picture books. 

“We like to instill the idea of visual literacy,” he said. “You can look at the picture and tell me the story. And that is reading. You’re looking at someone with a frown and saying they might be sad because. . . there’s his kite in the middle of the lake.”

Usha Rodrigues, an associate law professor, had a daughter in Mr. Phillip’s class.

“He’s great,” she said. “He has boundless energy and enthusiasm. And he has a lot of control over the class. He keeps the kids engaged, paying attention and focused.”

But students and parents aren’t the only ones to notice Mr. Phillip’s zeal for his job. He recently received the Georgia Association on Young Children’s Fan Brooke Award for innovation, enthusiasm and dedication in working with young children. 

“Every morning I’m excited about what I get to do,” he said. “It might be just the fact that I get to wear pajamas to school. It might be that I get to cook something or create something with a group of children whom I positively adore. It could be that I get to hang out and just talk to kids. I get a lot of fulfillment out of it.

“That sounds overtly passionate,” he said. “That’s how I feel. It’s a great gig.”