At the Early Childhood Center at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, children begin learning as early as three months old.
“Watching your toddler crawling across the carpet, it can be hard to imagine that they’re ready for school,” says the ECC’s director, Miriam Kalmar. “But the benefits of early childhood education are well documented. Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better off they are later in life.”
Even more than starting early, it’s important that children be engaged in their own education. “A major component of education must be to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts that will provoke, stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual dispositions,” says Lillian Katz, former head of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Based on the world-renowned schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, Stephen Wise’s ECC views children as capable, strong, and rich with wonder and knowledge. “Here, students help guide the curriculum,” explains Kalmar. “All of our classes are taught by experienced early childhood educators who respond to the rapidly evolving needs and experiences of the children. Through close observations, the teachers ‘hear’ the inherent questions the children are asking. Children don’t have to be verbal to express their curiosity about what they observe, and then test their theories.”
Starting with children three to 12 months old, the ECC’s Baby Buds class gives children — and their parents — the opportunity to socialize and build bonds with each other while exploring materials they might not otherwise encounter. “We address topics parents care about like eating, sleeping, bonding and adjusting to change, and provide a safe and structured environment for the youngest learners to explore their surroundings,” says Kalmar, who teaches the class.
By 12 to 22 months, children are ready for Seeds of Wonder, the ECC’s class that prepares toddlers for separation and school. Led by an experienced toddler teacher, it offers opportunities for children to socialize with other children while investigating interesting materials — like clay, wire, paint and other media — engaging in movement and song, and beginning to develop their Jewish identities through Shabbat and holiday celebrations.
“Especially with the isolating effect of this pandemic, it’s so important for children to develop their social skills,” says Kalmar, who notes that all adults must provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and wear face coverings. “These early classes prepare our children for the routine and expectations of preschool.”
Once children begin school at the ECC’s 2s program, “there’s a gradual and steady separation period when children get to know the teachers, their peers and the classroom at a slow pace,” Kalmar explains. “The teachers become important partners with parents. They offer guidance about development and share strategies that parents can use at home.” Every classroom has a teacher who holds or is working towards a master’s degree and the teachers meet weekly to discuss ways to better bring Judaism, Reggio-inspired education, and best practices into the classroom.
At Stephen Wise, children learn in meaningful contexts, using everyday moments as opportunities for growth and learning. The school boasts a state-of-the-art rooftop playground, a water play area, and a whimsical indoor playroom — spaces that speak to children’s imagination and innate playfulness, and accommodate their different physical needs and developmental stages.
And in their light-filled art studio, creativity runs free.
Stephen Wise’s students are ready to give back to the community. “Last year, our four- and five-year-olds found out that their younger peers didn’t know how to use scissors. Since they couldn’t mingle with other classes due to COVID restrictions, they created a series of pre-recorded videos and led Zoom classes to help teach them.”
Their sense of civic duty doesn’t stop there. When they found out there would be a new president in the White House, the ECC’s oldest charges penned a letter to the president-elect welcoming him into office. “Even at your young ages, you have the power to impact the future for generations to come,” President Joe Biden wrote in response. “Throughout your lives, remain curious, creative, and fearless.”
“This school creates a strong community and produces caring citizens of the world,” says Kalmar. “They’re prepared for wherever their journeys take them, and they’ll always have a home at Stephen Wise — rooted in wonder, inquiry and Jewish values.”
Learn more about the Early Childhood Center at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue by visiting swfs.org/ecc or calling (212) 877-4050, ext. 231.