“Kathy!” Later: “Kathy!” Later: “Kathy!”
At The Children’s Preschool on Whitney Avenue, kids in colorful jackets are bouncing across the playground, chattering and giggling as they go. They’re driving pint-sized plastic cars, rolling hula hoops as far as they can and popping in and out out of a bright red playhouse. Occasionally, they’re calling out to school director Kathy Michel—pronounced “Michael”—to tell her what they’ve discovered, or to show her what they can do.
Seeing as the preschool pursues what Michel, pictured second, calls a “play-based” learning philosophy, all seems right with the scene playing out in this little pocket of the city, one that’s easy to miss. It’s located in and around the carriage house behind the First Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven. Sharing a one-lane driveway with a macadam parking lot at the end, signage for the school is hard to come by; I didn’t spot anything street-facing, and the carriage house itself, pretty far back from the road, sports just a small wooden plank, painted white with black lettering.
Founded in 1971 on a “parent cooperative” model, where parents of enrolled students are meant to handle pretty much everything, times have changed for TCP—to an extent. “In ’71, parents were in the classroom teaching,” Michel says, but as the typical New Haven family started to have two breadwinners instead of one, “it became next to impossible to require that.” So it wasn’t too long before the model was tweaked to bring in dedicated teachers, with “dedicated” applying every which way. Crunching some numbers posted at the school’s website, the six staffers average more than 15 years at TCP, and the amount of “relevant experience” they have averages out to nearly 23.
Yet parent involvement is still extraordinarily high here, with moms and dads running various administrative committees—fundraising, admissions, personnel—which, Michel thinks, makes for an extraordinarily tight-knit community. Parents also fill seats on an elected executive board that confers with teachers and FUUSNH, the landlord, to make bigger decisions.
It’s a fundamentally hands-on place, and as much as that’s true for the parents—Michel is quick to point out, by the way, that some of them simply can’t do as much as others, and that that’s understandable—it’s even truer for the kids. They garden outside in the yard. They (help) cook food “from scratch” in the school’s small but tidy kitchen. Of an indoor playground in the main activity space, they pretend-cook on the first level and real-climb to the second, where a passage with colorfully rimmed portholes and a railed open-air deck overlook the rest of the room. In another corner, three fun-sized rows of red sliding drawers give kids easy, self-directed access to clearly labeled crafting goods like crepe paper, stickers and yarn. Kept out of easy reach is the stuff that could pose a hazard without supervision, including tools and toys kept in bins with labels like “magnets” and “polar bears, penguins and walruses.”
According to Michel, the school also has 1,700 books—or rather, 1,700 that have been catalogued, with an untold number awaiting the same treatment—ranging from collections of nature photographs to imaginative, illustrated fictions. Hundreds of them are kept on shelves for easy access on the main floor; many more hundreds are kept upstairs in a large attic storage space. Meanwhile, she says, the school has hundreds of games and puzzles, with teachers heading up to the attic “every few weeks” to change up the selection downstairs.
Another thing Michel says is special about TCP is that, most of the time, it very deliberately mixes its 3- and 4-year-olds together. She says the tactic produces benefits in both directions: the younger kids learn more quickly from the examples set by the older kids, while the older ones develop empathy through bringing the less experienced up to speed. “We find that the older kids really look after the younger kids. They take care of each other.” And in order to avoid a situation where the older children are having to do things below their brain-grade, Michel says the school chooses and frames activities in ways that leave room for more or less advanced approaches. “We make it so that everybody has their own success with the materials they use and how they use them.”
Having worked at TCP for over thirty years, Michel has probably seen it all, and yet she continues to find joy in the simple unexpected interactions that can happen with kids that age. She relates a recent exchange with a boy, where the concept of age and numbers was being explored: “We said, ‘How old are you? Are you 10?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Are you 6?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you 4?’ ‘No.’”
Playfully exasperated, they asked, “Well, how old are you?” to which he replied, “I’m not old!”
Soon enough he’ll come to grasp the contextual differences that are possible for words like “old.” In the meantime, he’ll keep giving Michel and the other teachers at The Children’s Preschool kindly bursts of glee, and reminding them how much they love what they do.
The Children’s Preschool
608 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.