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Day care teaches kids differences

Sam and Laura are best friends. They go to the same day-care center. On this day, they busy themselves with a play dinner party.

Sam sits on a stool before a meal of plastic cauliflower while Laura reaches around her walker to answer the pretend doorbell.

Laura Carroll, 4, has cerebral palsy. Five-year-old Sam Charlick doesn't. And that's what Best Friends Day Care Center is about.

The school looks like any other, with toys strewn about and Sesame Street characters on the wall, but classrooms also have walkers, motorized wheelchairs and wooden "floor-sitters" for disabled students.

Four of six classrooms at the center, which is affiliated with the United Cerebral Palsy Association, have a mix of disabled and non-disabled children.

"We try to teach them to acknowledge that people are different and not to make a judgment about that," center director Pat Benvenuto said. "They're kids first. That's what we try to get across."

Benvenuto said she got the idea for integrated classes when she read of research showing children have preconceived ideas about disabilities by age 6.

She started a monthly exchange between disabled students and her son's day-care center. The idea soon became a weekly gathering and culminated in Best Friends' integrated classrooms in 1988.

The center's teachers develop activities that overcome students' occasional segregation based on mobility. Pretend meals, where students gather around a table or a play kitchen, are popular.

"It's fun," Sam said. "I like playing with Laura."

Laura decides dinner is over and walks on her knees to the play sink. She pulls herself up on her feet and starts washing dishes.

Some of the other disabled children also have cerebral palsy. Others have hearing impairments, spina bifida, head trauma or Down's syndrome.

The center has 25 non-disabled and 47 disabled children enrolled. Most are part-time students. The youngsters, ranging from 15 months to 5 years, are grouped by developmental age.

Speech, occupational and physical therapists move from room to room, leading children in activities designed to promote specific skills. Teachers weave therapy into the day.

At snack time, students pour their own milk or practice licking peanut butter off their lips to sharpen motor skills. To work on using both sides of the body, students raise both arms above their heads, a feat for those with cerebral palsy.

A computer that sings Old MacDonald helps children learn to recognize shapes and mimic sounds.

When students ask why Laura doesn't stomp her feet, teachers explain differences, Benvenuto said. Sometimes questions are prompted by a classmate's absence or hospital stay, or by a child's fear of contracting a disability.

United Cerebral Palsy Association affiliates in Dallas, Denver, Little Rock, Ark., Panama City, Fla., and several other cities also have day-care centers with integrated classes.

Usually, students accept disabilities as they do the color of their best friend's hair. Knee braces and helmets become toys coveted by disabled and non-disabled students during recess.

But even students at Best Friends, like children anywhere, will taunt each other about their differences, Benvenuto said. Anything is fair game, from a new haircut to a new leg brace.

"It's "Because you're annoying me, I'm going to pick on your most vulnerable spot,' " she said.