Nursery School: The Tender Bridge

Monday, January 22, 2018

HOPE NIMAN PROSKY, Former Director, Grace Church School

Tiny and helpless, a new baby is embraced by adoring parents who open their hearts to this long-awaited presence. Life radically changes as the new parents become acquainted with their offspring’s burgeoning personality. The first crooked smile emerges as the baby gazes into their loving eyes. Many other “firsts” follow—first tooth, first word, first step.

Soon, the baby is toddling away from her parents with courage, keeping them as a focal point, a beam of love, knowing she can return to them for safety and comfort. At this point, the parent-child dyad is established and strong.

The Parent, Child and School Triad

At the age of two or three, a young child’s world grows to include the nursery school experience, the bridge between home and the wider world of ongoing elementary school. This tender bridge leads to a solid foundation that forever instills a love of school.

It is now that parents and their children are asked to expand the cocoon of the little world of home to include and trust in the community of the nursery school—its philosophy, its staff, its daily rhythms, the influence of other families. This is when the triad of parent, teachers and child begins. Picture a triangle where the child is at the top, with parents and teachers at the base establishing a collaborative partnership to support the child and each other. Imagine a rainbow of magical colors above the triangle creating a limitless horizon of promise and possibility.

It all starts when parents begin looking at nursery schools, feeling their ambience and teaching styles, taking the pulse of each school as they try to envision it as a second home for their child, a new beginning. A school is chosen, and the triad takes shape.

The first steps onto the tender bridge are essential in the nursery school experience. The school year may be preceded by a teacher’s visit to the child at home, or perhaps the child enjoys a short visit to the school before it officially begins. But it is on the first day, when the little child, a bit tremulous, holds tightly to a parent’s hand and takes those first steps into school, that the separation process is initiated.

Parents accompany their children into the classroom, watch them explore the new environment as they gain trust in their teachers, observe their peers and begin to feel at home. As the bond to school strengthens, parents and children feel ready to bid each other a gentle good-bye.

It is usually not long before these once timid children begin to proclaim their love of school. When parents hear “I love school more than Christmas” or, “I wish it were Monday so I could go to school” it is more than gratifying.

A Haven for Children

Inculcating values, reinforcing kindness, empathy and respect are the bedrock of the nursery school years. Later, in elementary school, there will be report cards with grades, rigorous homework, and academic competition. But for now, work is playful, and expectations are gentler. We might ask children to bring an object from home for “Letter of the Week,” or one hundred items (such as feathers, buttons or pennies) for the hundredth day of school, or food for the Thanksgiving Harvest Food Drive for people who have not enough to eat. Learning to give from the heart remains a consistent goal.

Nursery school is where children begin to explore their feelings about the bigger world. For every issue of our school newspaper, we ask a question relevant to the highlighted season or holiday, and include a quote from each child. Here, from the Martin Luther King birthday issue, are some poignant responses from our Fours to the question, “What is your dream for the world?”:

I wish that everyone was nice to each other and had a best friend.
I wish there was no trash.
I wish that rainbows always came after the rain.
I wish that all people had freedom.
I wish that everyone had vegetables.
I wish that there was no fighting.
I wish that the whole wide world had a home.

Even in an age of technology, the enchantment of books is of primary importance. Aside from a scheduled library time for each class every week, the library is open in the mornings before school for parents and children to read together. We often send parents information about favorite books or new books the children love. In turn, children bring cherished books from home to share with classmates.

As they progress through the nursery school years, children explore the world by learning in a multi-sensory, experiential way. The process is open-ended and flexible. Young minds stretch to embrace exciting, age-appropriate curriculum. The older children learn what fair play brings to friendship. They develop a positive sense of self and a sense of their unique roles in what I call “the little democracy of the classroom.”

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A New Community—For Parents, As Well

It is not only the child whose world is expanding. As parents partake in their children’s development, they often find that their own sense of wonder and curiosity is reawakened and savored.

Every attempt is made to include new parents in the nursery school community. There is open school night, where parents meet with their children’s teachers to learn about the curriculum for the year ahead. Class potluck suppers or parent coffees provide an opportunity for parents to socialize with one another without the presence of their children. These gatherings often mark the beginning of life-long friendships.

Many teachers also communicate with parents through regular curriculum emails that include photographs of children at work on class projects. Parents are encouraged to visit their child’s classroom to share a special talent, read a story, celebrate holiday traditions such as Lunar New Year, or to take part in a special tradition.

In our school, one such tradition is the Medieval Feast. Culminating a study of the Middle Ages, our feast is replete with castles, shields and stained glass designs, the children with crowns on their heads, dining in royal splendor. Their parents are their serfs, serving a banquet of peacock legs (chicken tenders), cheese from the royal dairy, queen’s grapes and plastic goblets of mead (apple juice).

At conferences later in the fall, parents and teachers share their knowledge of each child’s home and school life. The child’s growing abilities and goals for the year are discussed, as well as humorous anecdotes that will be stored in family memory banks for a lifetime.

I recall one such anecdote: a mother called to ask me to retrieve her child from the classroom because she was delayed on the subway. At pick-up time, I brought the child to my office, explaining that her mother would be at school soon, but that she was stuck on the subway. The little girl immediately began to cry, “My mother will never come to get me! Is she stuck in glue or cement? She won’t be able to get up.” I explained that “stuck” was an expression, not a fact, and that her mother was not literally stuck. When the mother arrived, the little girl gleefully jumped into her mother’s arms as I shared her daughter’s “concern.” We laughed and bonded and, as so often happens when these stories are shared, the triad grew.

Sharing Concerns

There are times, however, when parents and teachers confer and must share sadder stories. In life, even for young children, the unexpected occurs, requiring the school to play an important role in helping the child. The death of a loved one, family emergencies, extensive work and travel schedules, separations and divorces cause tension and anxiety to arise, creating atypical behaviors such as sleep problems, tantrums, regressions. It is essential for a teacher to be aware of these issues, and to be a source of comfort and information for parent and child.

The expertise of staff comes into play when there are concerns about a child’s development. There may be a need for a professional assessment or evaluation as parents and teachers work together to find solutions that will help the child flourish. The commonality of concern for the child is at the center of the triad, as it strengthens with time and mutual understanding.

Saying Goodbye

The ending of the nursery school years is bittersweet. Parents and teachers remember the very beginning of the process when the youngest children entered school. We delight in the children’s remarkable growth from the toddler’s tipsy walk to the angular bodies and loose teeth of a 5-year-old. They’ve beguiled us with their growing independence. Their freshness of vision has inspired us, as they continue to charm us with their irrepressible humor. We’ve embraced their evanescence of spirit.

But the proud feelings of accomplishment may be accompanied by mourning, or by anxiety about what lies ahead. Parents and children alike can become teary-eyed and nostalgic as they realize the intimacy and coziness of the nursery school triad is coming to an end.

Just as saying “hello” to nursery school is part of the growth process, saying “goodbye” is important, too. Although families must formally leave nursery school behind, its enchanting qualities remain in children’s hearts and souls and are ingrained in the parenting experience forever. As children move on to larger horizons and new rainbows, parents and teachers know that the nursery school triad has built a sanctuary to sustain, guide and uplift all who have shared in the magical, unforgettable process.

About the Author

Hope Niman Prosky retired after 32 years as the Director of Grace Church School, a Twos through Kindergarten school in Brooklyn.

This article first appeared in the 2016 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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