Isaiah Phipps’ eyes grew wide as he saw the other kids, and then the preschool classroom jammed with toys he’d never played with before.

For Isaiah, 3, Friday’s preschool debut was the first social outing of his short life. He has never eaten a meal at a restaurant. He has never been to a department store. And he had never been with a large group of children.

Likewise, most of the 4- and 5-year-olds in the class had never met a child who breathes through a tube in his throat and communicates with sign language. The teachers at the Family Development Center on the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs are teaching their kids about the different people in their community. It’s empathy training for tots, and Isaiah was there to teach them that special-needs children aren’t weird or scary.

The lesson just happens to fall at a time when public figures including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and talk radio pundit Rush Limbaugh have been criticized for using “retarded” as an insult. Teacher Carol Quillin said, “If we teach them early, it won’t be strange or foreign to them.”

Born at 26 weeks at Memorial Health System, Isaiah spent his first seven months in the hospital while his mom stayed at the nearby Ronald McDonald House. He has a weakened immune system, 24-hour nursing, and a phalanx of medical equipment that has kept him homebound other than medical appointments.

His mother, Becky Phipps, said she felt some fear as they entered the classroom.

“I was just nervous, mainly about how the kids would react, and how he would react to all these kids,” she said. “I thought he’d be scared and he’s not.”

He played madly with the new toys, navigating the crowd of kids as if he’d been among them all his life.

Phipps told the kids about Isaiah’s premature birth – “he wasn’t done baking” – and his special needs. He blew bubbles through his trachea tube to show them how it worked and even flashed some sign language. Then Ronald McDonald stopped by in his giant shoes to put on a show for all the kids.

“As a parent that hasn’t been able to share her child, it’s like a coming-out party,” said Becky Phipps. “I get to share my amazing son with the world.

“We need to educate kids and parents and society that these kids are different, but they still have feelings and emotions, and they need to be treated the same even though they’re a little different.”

After the Phippses left, teacher Cora Mosely gathered her kids to talk about what they had learned.

“Does Isaiah talk with his mouth?” she asked them.

“No,” said Kai Tapolchanyi, “he talks with his hands and his heart.”

Mosely looked at Quillin. “Maybe we’re getting somewhere.”