PORTLAND — Forty years after it was founded, the mission at The Children’s Center remains the same: to create a foundation for lifelong learning by providing an environment where kids are encouraged to indulge their curiosity.

The nonprofit center, on Stevens Avenue, has an enrollment of about 100 students and just hired a new executive director.

To celebrate four decades of providing a novel early childhood education experience, the center is holding a special event Saturday for students, their families, and alumni. The event includes a family-friendly party from 3-7 p.m., plus more adult-focused entertainment from 7-10 p.m. Tickets are $10 per person and proceeds will benefit the center’s building fund.

The Children’s Center is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and originated as a learning lab where early childhood education students at Westbrook College could gain valuable hands-on experience teaching and working with preschoolers.

The school remained a program of Westbrook College from 1978-2000, when the college was purchased by the University of New England. Rather than close, however, The Children’s Center was saved by “a group of dedicated parents” who worked hard to preserve it, said Debby Adkins, the center’s program coordinator.

Today The Children’s Center continues to operate as a practicum site and caters to students from Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine, Adkins said.

“The Children’s Center (is focused around providing) a vibrant learning environment that nurtures curiosity through hands-on learning. (We also) enhance our program using recent early childhood education research and best practices,” she added.

Adkins said the most important aspect of the school is the emphasis it places on connecting with the families of its students.

“Our school thrives with the support of engaged parent volunteers and alumni,” she said. “Our families are deeply involved in the school experience via community events, work days, board and committee participation and more.”

Another key feature of The Children’s Center is its expansive natural outdoor play area.

“The exceptionally large yard has bridges, swings, mazes, several sandboxes, hills for climbing and sledding, raised bed gardens, a dramatic play stage, trike paths, and a magical tree house,” Adkins said.

In addition, “the many … nooks and crannies throughout the yard support both active and quiet play.”

“The community at The Children’s Center embodies (our) mission statement in everything they do and everything they teach,” said Kate Saucier, the new board president. “That’s why the school has thrived for 40 years and will for 40 more.”

Adkins said The Children’s Center plays an important role because “the emotional, social and physical development of young children has a direct and lasting effect on their future educational experiences and on the adults they will become.”

Overall, she said, “The Children’s Center (provides) the environment essential for children to flourish at the hard work we call play. Each day is filled with activities like art, music, storytelling, reading, outdoor play, dramatic play, circle time, and many hands-on explorations.”

The ultimate goal, Adkins said, is to help the children “develop skills in self-control and self-awareness, so that they become independent, confident learners.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Students at The Children’s Center on Stevens Avenue in Portland are encouraged to become independent learners through experimental play and access to a wide variety of activities, such as music.

A key aspect of the curriculum at The Children’s Center is access to a large outdoor play area.