Nurturing the Youngest Chicago City Day School Learners

At Chicago City Day School, a culture of kindness begins in the classrooms of junior and senior kindergarten. What they learn there is the foundation for academic and personal success.

Through careful planning and a focus on safety, Chicago City Day School, an independent JK-8 school on Chicago’s North Side, opened fully for in-person education this school year. And this in-classroom experience mattered most to the youngest learners at City Day.

“Early on in the pandemic, we knew that safe in-person learning was vital for our students, especially our youngest students,” says Chris Dow, head of school at City Day. “The school’s mission to develop each child’s intellectual abilities in a nurturing environment simply could not be achieved as effectively on a screen.

“The junior and senior kindergarten curriculum is designed to integrate the students into the school’s rich learning community; to develop a love for learning through play; and to foster inquisitive minds. In order to achieve those goals, we felt we must have the students together in the building as much as possible.”

In City Day’s play-based curriculum, every moment is a chance to learn and grow, giving that in-person experience an extra significance, says teacher Meg Clarahan. Clarahan is part of a team of expert early childhood educators at City Day, all of whom have advanced degrees in their field.

“For our young learners, this is their first experience with formal education,” Clarahan explains. “Play is how children make sense of the world and of how they relate to others. These formative years provide the foundation for solving problems, creating narratives and understanding the feelings of others.”

The kindergarten day

Recognizing the 4- and 5-year-old attention span, City Day teachers lead activities that are appropriately brief but immersive. Each day, students begin with play, and then conduct a morning meeting where they discuss the calendar, weather and activities for the day.

“In addition to our core learning time, the students have a full slate of special subjects, including study of either Spanish or French, art, music, drama, science, and a tech program that builds design and construction skills,” Clarahan says.

The balance between developmentally appropriate academics and child-led activities helps students learn structure in an engaging atmosphere. And in the process, they’re building skills that will serve them in their future experiences at City Day, says Dow.

“What makes our early childhood program unique is that it is engaging and age-appropriate while also introducing students to the larger academic setting at City Day,” Dow says. “It’s so wonderful to see the kids transition from one topic or subject to another, because we know these transitions help them prepare for the rest of their academic lives.”

Both Clarahan and Dow say it is rewarding to see how young learners grow and change during the course of the school year.

“You see it many different ways,” says Dow. “By the end of the year, a student who once left a trail of belongings in his wake is now preparing his own backpack for school with all the activities of the day in mind. Building these skills develops their independence and sets them up for success for years to come.”

Remarkable resources for early childhood learners

City Day was able to bring all students back to campus safely by making creative use of its existing resources: The student body is small by design, and the campus is an expansive two acres that allow students to spread out both in and out of the classroom.

In addition to maintaining class pods, City Day created specialized spaces inside its main building for kindergartners to safely play and learn. Whenever possible, teachers moved lessons outdoors.

“This year, when our kids weren’t able to play as safely indoors, we had sensory play with beach toys in the snow,” Clarahan explains. “We studied the wildlife in the school’s koi pond and explored other parts of the natural world on our campus.

“We’ve always used our outdoor spaces, but this year, they became even more central to our curriculum.”

The school’s ability to adapt its program in 2020-2021 ensured that kindergartners enjoyed the foundational academic experience that is so critical to their growth in future years. Like all grades at City Day, the junior and senior kindergarten years build on each other and establish a culture of kindness that City Day is known for.

“It’s a singular experience from junior kindergarten to grade 8 at our school. It starts at age 4 and ends at 14 with learners who are prepared for whatever challenges may await them,” Dow says. “Our youngest students benefit from being part of a true academic community. They see the older students on campus, see the confidence and enthusiasm that our oldest students have, and that serves as an important modeling experience.”

The school’s efforts have been appreciated by its parent community, Clarahan says, adding that one parent remarked that sending their child to junior kindergarten at Chicago City Day School was the best decision they had ever made.

“Parents are delighted when they see the whole-child growth and development,” Clarahan explains. “This leads directly into academics, but also builds a good friend, a good fellow student and a good family member.”

Dow says that the challenges posed by the pandemic confirmed how important it is for City Day to continue doing the work that has been its hallmark since the school’s founding in 1981.

“The school’s approach has been the foundation for our students’ success for 40 years, and we were always going to do everything possible to avoid having these junior and senior kindergartners miss out on that,” says Dow.

Learn more about Chicago City Day School at chicagocitydayschool.org.

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