Childhood education specialist combines quilting with development

Anara Thomas has long been fascinated by how pre-school children develop, so when she became hooked on quilting nine years ago she decided to put both interests to work.

Thomas, who has served as an early childhood program specialist in Western Washington University’s Associated Students Child Development Center for 14 years, says she’s captivated by how much pre-school children can learn from quilts. She recently spoke at Skagit Valley College’s “Connections Conference” about quiltmaking for young children and says she would like to continue giving presentations such as this because she has become convinced that quiltmakers have much to offer kids.

Thomas came to Whatcom County 37 years ago with her husband, George. They are the parents of two grown children and will celebrate their 45th anniversary April 28.

Question: Seems like you’ve found a wonderful way to combine your interests. What gave you the idea?

Answer: I ran across a great article about quilting and education in Young Children magazine seven years ago. I’ve been fascinated in early childhood development since I was a teenager, watching how pre-schoolers play, think, problem-solve and talk.

When I returned to college, I designed my own major through Western’s liberal studies department and earned my degree in childhood/family studies in 1990. Now I’m one of four early childhood program specialists at Western.

Q: That’s a wonderful program, isn’t it?

A: Yes. I love the co-op model, and our program is nationally accredited. We work with pre-kindergarten children 2 to 5 years old. Anyone at Western — faculty, staff, and students — is eligible to enroll children.

Q: What’s this about you finally deciding to work with 2-year-olds?

A: I had never worked with 2-year-olds in a classroom setting, but I was convinced to give it a try. Now I’ve discovered they’re great! But I give the parents credit for preparing them so well. I’m even going to use quilts to help teach them this spring. I had always worked with the 4- and 5-year-olds until this year. Now I’ll work with the 2-year-olds again next year. It’s a whole different world. I would just like to see what’s going on in their brains! And I love seeing the amazing changes during the year. I like to say the 2-year-olds are teaching me well.

Q: How were you introduced to quilting?

A: I joined a quilt guild, the Moonlight Quilters. We meet one evening a month. A lot of the women work fulltime. They made me feel welcome even though I had no experience. Now I call myself an intermediate quilter. I’m really more of a folk artist.

Q: Quilting involves so many skills, it does seem logical that little kids could learn a lot from it.

A: They really do. I introduce the subject of quilts and quilting by having stories that are quilt-related. I have a long list of books for children that involve quilts. Children are fascinated when they learn how quilts can tell stories.

Q: That’s right, you can learn a lot of family history through quilts. Almost everyone can remember one of their grandmother’s stories about a favorite quilt.

A: That’s right. You can talk about how the fabrics used to belong to someone else — dad’s shirt, mom’s dress, a child’s pants. There are endless permutations of stories about where quilts came from and what they mean. They really do tell great stories.

Q: So reading and some language skills are obviously educational activities that can be quilt-related. What about math?

A: Sure, kids become very involved in learning math through quilting, and about discriminating shapes, like the number of squares, circles and triangles in a quilt. And if a child’s peers are counting higher, that child also will be encouraged to learn to.

Q: And what a great way to learn about colors and textures.

A: It really is a wonderful way to teach about colors and sensory skills.

Q: When you think about it, what little kid isn’t fascinated by a quilt?

A: It’s nice if we can encourage children to bring a quilt and share. It’s great to see a child tell the stories of the quilt.