Emily Lorentzen, a Chicago mom of three, didn’t know precisely what she wanted for her oldest child’s first educational experience. She did know that she wanted a nurturing, engaging environment where her daughter could enjoy social time with children her own age.
“I was actively looking for a preschool, not full-time child care,” Lorentzen says. “My partner and I wanted her to have someplace where she could go and didn’t have to have her little sister in her space.”
Lorentzen’s own sister is an educator with deep knowledge in child development, so, after seeking her expert advice, Lorentzen contacted Smart Love Preschool in Chicago’s Logan Square for a tour. “We had all of our questions answered, especially those about curriculum,” she says, adding that their intention was not to provide an early start to elementary school for Mabel, but rather engage her in age-appropriate experiences.
“We asked about how they handled transitions between activities and what happens with conflict,” she says, adding that the answers she received were “thoughtful, caring and kind.”
Rather than using traditional forms of discipline, Smart Love Preschool practices a child-centered approach called loving regulation. If a child is having a hard time, teachers regulate any unsafe behaviors, stay close by, listen to, acknowledge and understand the child’s feelings and why the child is upset. When a child feels heard and understood in this way, the child often feels better, and this responsiveness also models a growth-promoting way to take care of oneself and others.
Smart Love’s play-based project-focused learning makes so much sense, Lorentzen says, sharing an anecdote about “Pink Town,” an entire village made of painted pink boxes the children planned and executed. “Working together, they planned and measured and cut the boxes. There was so much learning they absorbed that you can’t teach with worksheets. They were learning so much and it’s fun for them, so they don’t even feel like they’re learning. That’s what really drew us to the school,” she says. “It’s hands-on and child-led.”
Building important skills at Smart Love Preschool
Pretty soon, Mabel’s sister Willa was old enough to attend Smart Love, and Mabel attended Smart Love’s kindergarten so both girls could attend the same school. Today, they’re 8 and 6 and thriving in elementary school after a strong foundation at Smart Love.
Especially fulfilling was the experience of watching her two daughters develop social-emotional skills — even how to negotiate, which is a valuable skill for siblings to have.
“Among the most important skills they learned at Smart Love was empathy. Maybe not just that they could relate that a friend was hurt or sad, but that they could see their friend wanted something and that caused conflict. They could determine how badly they wanted it and figure out where they could meet in the middle,” Lorentzen explained. “They learned how to see another person’s point of view, how to work together and how to negotiate.”
Because they were encouraged to follow their own curiosity, their desire to learn flourished. Her children know how and when to ask for help so they can satisfy their need to learn. “That type of resourcefulness was among the major skills that came out of Smart Love programs for my children,” Lorentzen says.
Smart Love Preschool’s approach to early childhood education supports children’s development and nurtures their curiosity, resiliency, and love of learning, important skills for learning through elementary school and beyond.
A variety of developmentally appropriate programs
Florence, Lorentzen’s youngest daughter, just completed Smart Love’s Playschool program, a drop-off toddler class for 2- and 3-year-olds. Designed to provide a gentle, fun introduction to preschool concepts, Playschool was just the right environment for Florence to make a gradual transition to her own early childhood education experience, Lorentzen says.
Reluctant at first to join in without a parent or caregiver, Florence eventually felt comfortable enough to jump in with both feet. But it was the way the Smart Love Playschool teachers respected Florence’s individual needs — and never forced separation — that made all the difference to that success, Lorentzen says.
“We were prepared for her to be hesitant because she was so young and it turned out to be a great experience for her,” she says. “By the winter, she ran up the ramp and didn’t look back. She really got over this hump in collaboration with the Smart Love teachers.”
This fall, Florence will join the Smart Love Preschool program, after she visited a few times to decide if it would be a good fit for her.
“It was sweet the way we brainstormed together on the best approach to see if she was ready for the Preschool program. She visited and the teachers asked her what she thought of it,” Lorentzen explains. “As a parent, I know the difference between a little fussiness and trauma and there’s no reason to push past Flo’s comfort level because there will be time for that. The more secure she feels, the more she will explore and go on her own.”
Especially for Florence, Lorentzen says she appreciates how Smart Love makes each child feel comfortable and secure where they are.
“There’s no pass or fail or any requirement to do something. For the children, there is no messaging that makes them feel they are ahead or behind, because both can be detrimental,” she says. “They meet each child where they are and help them grow and explore their interests.” Throughout the years, all three sisters have attended Smart Love’s summer camp program, where they experienced the same gentle, developmentally appropriate hands-on learning.
Smart Love’s full name is Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool and its name honors the late social worker and Chicago community leader who “considered every child a precious being who deserved every opportunity to fully realize his or her potential,” according to Smart Love’s website. Today, Smart Love is part of the Natalie & Ben Heineman Smart Love Center, which, in addition to Smart Love Preschool, also offers counseling services, assessments, tutoring and parenting resources to Chicagoland families.
To get the true feel for Smart Love, Lorentzen encourages parents to take a tour, virtual or in-person. “See the classroom and meet the people running the program,” she says. “It was helpful for us to know that Smart Love is a nurturing preschool environment, but that they are there for you in other ways, too. They know how to support families and it’s nice to get input from someone who knows your children.”
Learn more about Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool. Visit smartlovefamily.org.