Early childhood educators at North Shore Country Day, a private, independent JK-12 school in Winnetka, know that 3- to 5-year-old children learn best doing what they naturally love to do: play. But what looks like all-day fun is actually research-based, highly appropriate early childhood education.
“It’s easy to think that early childhood teachers are just playing with kids all day, but at this age, play is essential. All neuroscience and social-emotional research points to it,” says Tim Sheehan, Head of Lower School at North Shore Country Day (NSCD).
In fact, for the youngest learners and the teachers who guide them, play is actually academic. When approached appropriately, play-based learning lays a foundation for success that can support the student for a lifetime.
“When done right, this builds learners who are curious, excited and appropriately risk-engaged for trying new ideas and experimenting, and that ethos transcends through 12th grade and beyond,” Sheehan explains. “But it starts in early childhood when children learn to count and make friends, and build an appreciation for the symbols that turn into letters and turn into words.”
Launching academic success from the start
It’s the recognition of the importance of early childhood learning that elevates the junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten programs at NSCD to be well-supported and well-resourced foundational years — a concept that is often contrary to a traditional educational hierarchy that places the most emphasis on learning at older ages, Sheehan says.
Yet, it’s within these early years that children take their first steps onto the spiraling curriculum that makes the NSCD experience so impactful. On a beautiful 16-acre campus, small groups of junior and senior kindergartners work together with a high ratio of educators and assistants to explore and learn.
“We recognize that early childhood teachers have the hardest and most important work,” he says. This is an especially important contributor to the cohesive educational approach at NSCD.
Here, engaged parents know that the whole-child focus on learning they practice at home is sustained and supported by the individualized instruction their child receives at NSCD, starting in the early years and extending throughout their educational journey.
In the junior and senior kindergarten programs, students are challenged intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally. The robust curriculum includes specialty classes like science, technology, art, music and Spanish language.
The younger students also learn to foster important relationships with older students to enhance their growth. It’s a key part of the NSCD education.
“The feeling of community at our school cannot be ignored and the ‘JK-through-12-ness’ is part of our secret sauce,” Sheehan explains. He shares a vignette about the pure joy radiated by a junior kindergarten student who, dressed as Batman for Halloween, spied his senior “buddy” bounding down the hallway dressed in full Robin costume. This match-up is a much-loved tradition for students in both grades. “It’s something that is a big part of our community, too.”
Strong parent partnerships
Every parent wants to do what’s right for their child, but making decisions isn’t always the easiest job. Faculty at NSCD know the value of recognizing that while each parent is the expert on their child, sometimes parents need extra support from their school.
“We are exceptional when it comes to developing and sustaining parent partnerships, whether this is a parent’s first child coming through school — or a second child who is nothing like the first,” Sheehan says. “What we do well is provide a support system for parents, and the value of having a robust, caring, accepting school-parent partnership couldn’t be greater in 2021.”
Sharing information continually throughout the year in addition to the typical parent-teacher touchpoints forms the “bread and butter” of the early childhood experience at NSCD. “If a parent calls because someone in the family dies — even the pet turtle — they will speak to responsive educators who make sure any appropriate adjustments needed are made in the classroom in real time,” Sheehan says. “We do that consistently, and I’d argue that we do it better than most schools.”
NSCD’s strong academic program coupled with support for parents in the classroom and community make NSCD an excellent choice for early childhood education.
Learn more about North Shore Country Day in Winnetka at www.nscds.org.