Take a peek in the junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten classrooms at Chicago City Day School and you will see 4- and 5-year-old students enthusiastically engaging in experiential learning on a variety of subjects. The youngest learners at City Day, an independent JK-8 school in Chicago’s Lakeview East, are laying a foundation for success in their future academic lives through developmentally appropriate exploration in a stimulating and nurturing environment that offers the very best benefits of early childhood education.
In addition to regular classroom time, students engage in several “specials” classes — including world languages, drama, art, music, science, physical education, library and technology — that offer them opportunities to experience every topic of study in an engaging way.
These specials classes are taught by passionate educators who are experts in their fields. For example, the science teacher who works with younger students at City Day is a geologist, and the school’s drama teacher is a professional stage actor and director.
“We foster a culture of collaboration between our junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten classroom teachers and the wonderful specials teachers,” says Meg Clarahan, junior kindergarten teacher at Chicago City Day School.
The study of patterns, for instance, carries across the entire learning experience for JK, including specials. In their homeroom, students begin by sorting, differentiating between same and different and matching by shape and size. When they get to music, their music teacher — who, like all specials teachers, is master’s-degree educated and skilled in providing age-appropriate instruction — encourages them to create and recognize patterns created with musical instruments. In art, the students create color patterns, and when they return to their homeroom, they create patterns using clay, an activity which also serves to strengthen their fine-motor skills and prepare them for the writing and fine manipulation they will do as they grow.
Kim Milano and Amy Singer, City Day’s senior kindergarten teachers, say that City Day’s specials classes deepen and enhance the learning that takes place in the SK homeroom.
“The students can apply what we do in the classroom to other projects in a real hands-on way,” says Singer. “We see the students become more independent and discover new passions. It’s a fantastic part of our program.”
Milano adds that the specials classes help prepare SK students for the transition to first grade, where students begin to explore City Day’s full academic curriculum.
“During kindergarten, our goal is to help students develop a passion for learning that will provide the foundation for a more academically challenging curriculum,” she says. “Our specials help unlock the students’ innate sense of curiosity.”
Rhythm for the day
Through specials, students at Chicago City Day are exposed to new experiences in age and developmentally appropriate ways, allowing the students to self-regulate in order to transition from one activity to the next. Each student receives a picture schedule of their weekly activities and specials, which they can review at home so they know what to expect.
“We teach transitions overtly, and what’s really wonderful is that the specials classes mirror the children’s attention spans,” Clarahan explains. “Students select French or Spanish at the beginning of the year and they engage in this world language four times each week for 15 minutes, which is perfect for a 4- or 5-year-old.”
The regularity of the class provides the repetition of vocabulary and songs the children need to learn the language, and just when they are ready to move on to the next activity, their class concludes and they continue on with their day.
“What’s unique about City Day is that from the beginning, even our youngest students are included in the broader school community. They love being out and able to see older children in the hallways and it’s a small enough environment that the older children know who they are and are happy to greet them,” she says. “Kindergarten is not a separate experience here. They are in the building and go everywhere the other kids go.”
The fact that JK and SK students experience specials from the very beginning means they experience educational continuity, too. By developing relationships with their specials teachers, they have an immediate comfort level from year to year, even if they don’t know their new grade level teacher yet, says Clarahan, who has two children of her own at Chicago City Day School.
“Even when they come back to school in the fall to a new teacher, they still know most of the teachers they spend time with each week. They still experience the same level of teacher collaboration for a very cohesive learning experience throughout.”
Building lifelong curiosity
Whether the students are engaging with books that were specially curated to their interests by the librarian, or they are learning process art with paints, acting out a fairy tale in drama class, sailing their own custom-built watercraft in the pond on the school’s 2-acre campus or observing a butterfly’s metamorphosis in real time, they are satisfying their own curiosities within a culture of kindness that helps them build a love for learning that lasts a lifetime.
“The more you know, the more curious you become, and City Day instills this curiosity in a way that is very real,” Clarahan says.
Most of all, children really enjoy being in the City Day learning environment, Clarahan says.
“At this age, children’s brains are wired to learn and they are very excited to be here. Some of our students come from a small-classroom environment and when they see all they get to do in a day, they are very excited about it,” she says. “Parents notice the growth.”
Learn more about Chicago City Day School at chicagocitydayschool.org.