Why North Shore Country Day Embraces an Academic Play-Based Curriculum

Learn why North Shore Country Day’s intentional blend of play-based learning and age-appropriate academics helps junior kindergarten students thrive

North Shore Country Day’s junior kindergarten classroom is a busy place. Here, through an academic play-based curriculum, young students explore academics and social-emotional learning through guided play, says Rebecca Reátegui, junior kindergarten teacher at North Shore Country Day (NSCD), an independent JK-12 school in Winnetka.

“Through our academic play-based junior kindergarten program, students take what they learn throughout the day and explore the concepts through play,” Reátegui says. “They learn how to negotiate, cooperate and share. They discover how to be a community member, how to make plans and even how to have a shared idea.”

In the classroom’s art center, students practice their letters and writing as they develop fine motor skills. At the block center, they explore numeracy, geometry and number-symbol correspondence. What they learn in one area, they can practice anywhere in the classroom. They might bring paper to the block center to make notes or they might make a shopping list in the kitchen.

“Children learn best by doing and through hands-on learning,” explains Kristi Kamen, NSCD junior kindergarten teacher. “They explore and manipulate and question and learn from their mistakes. That doesn’t happen without trial and error, so we encourage children to try new things that may be outside their comfort zone.”

By building strong relationships with their teachers, the junior kindergarten students learn that their classroom is a safe place to take risks, Reátegui explains. “Children take a lot of risks when learning new material and we see this in the math center or during literacy time. We’re asking them to share their knowledge about a new concept that was just introduced or that they are beginning to understand,” she says.

And, because North Shore Country Day’s junior kindergarten is fully immersed in the larger school environment, the school’s youngest learners participate in science, technology, art, music, PE and Spanish, all taught by North Shore Country Day’s lower school teachers. “They really get to experience what children get at an elementary school, but at a junior kindergarten level,” Kamen says.

How North Shore Country Day blends play and academics

While many preschool programs support a play-based curriculum, few reach beyond play to connect and build an academic foundation with students. “We build onto that play and give them skills to further their knowledge,” Kamen explains. “We scaffold and encourage them to go further.”

When students build towers, for instance, teachers are close at hand to talk about various built structures and the real-world engineered supports that make them strong. “We have real academics happening here and we take our students’ interests, and build content, skills and social-emotional learning into their units of study,” Reátegui says, adding that age-appropriate learning provides foundational skills that students will carry throughout their academic careers.

Each day at North Shore Country Day, teachers have the opportunity to assess student skills, and each child participates in various formal assessments. “Within the first few weeks of school, students write their names and then we ask them to do the same throughout the year and share this growth with parents. They’re usually stunned. Our students develop at an incredible rate. They’re really starting to understand the world around them and they are making connections,” says Kamen.

Part of an important educational community

As members of a JK-12 school, every junior kindergartner is paired with a 12th grade student and they connect through various activities during the year. On Halloween, the seniors talk with their JK buddy’s parents to learn what costume their child plans to wear. The senior buddy surprises their JK buddy by dressing in a complementary costume. It’s a big hit, Kamen says.

“When our junior kindergartner is all dressed up as Batman and sees their senior buddy walk down the hall dressed as Robin, the look on their face is magical,” she says. “It’s the sweetest thing in the world.”

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Photo credit: North Shore Country Day

Beyond fun, these relationships offer young students the opportunity to dream about what they can achieve when they are big. “Their buddies play sports or are in theater and often they will attend the game or performance. This really gives them a chance to see what they can be when they grow up. It’s a chance to dream and imagine themselves when they are bigger and connect to the possibilities of what they can do,” says Reátegui.

Children in preschool programs often worry about moving on to kindergarten after just finding their groove, but because they are part of a larger educational community from the start, junior kindergartners at North Shore Country Day transition smoothly to their next big step. And, because their teachers have witnessed their progression, they can provide unique insight to their students’ kindergarten teachers and continue to contribute to their success.

At North Shore Country Day, parents gain more than a quality academic play-based curriculum for their child because the expertise of the early childhood educators is available to support the entire family.

“We believe deeply in the partnership between our teachers and families,” says Reátegui, adding that North Shore Country Day embraces parent support groups and provides whatever resources families need to be successful. “The closer the home-school connection, the more we can help your child grow. We love open communication and mutual trust and support with our families. We all have the same goal to help their child.”

Learn more about North Shore Country Day at nscds.org.

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