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Play Groups School

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Playgrounds like the one above at Village Chabad preschool in East Setauket will play an important part in preschoolers’ days during the pandemic. Photo from Village Chabad

Students in the Three Village Central School District buildings aren’t the only ones that are dealing with a whole new world when it comes to attending school, children in daycares and preschools are also navigating new waters.

Preschools and daycare centers are taking new precautions which include teachers wearing masks, taking students’ temperatures, utilizing outdoor space more frequently, meeting parents outside and more. And while frequent handwashing and cleaning have been common practices in preschools in the past, now bleaching and more thorough cleaning of regularly touched spots such as doorknobs is required.

Mary Cain, executive director of Stony Brook Child Care Services, said the center closed down temporarily March 16 but then opened up shortly after to provide daycare for essential health care workers at Stony Brook University Hospital. The daycare and preschool had less children the last few months due to non-essential employees working from home.

During the early months of the pandemic, the center took care of 47 children of essential workers. With eight classrooms in total — four for infants and toddlers and the other four for preschoolers — only five were used. Earlier guidelines allowed 10 children to a room. Cain said the center took things a step further by limiting it to 10 people in the room, which included students and employees. With a maximum capacity of 160 before the pandemic, currently the childcare service has 90 enrolled, and Cain said it could go up to 120 eventually.

For children who didn’t attend, teachers would touch base with them and their parents via Zoom, and with some returning, the director said these children still recognize teachers even when they are using masks.

Teachers were concerned infants wouldn’t be able to handle their teachers wearing masks since they so often rely on facial expression, Cain said, but so far, the coverings haven’t hindered interactions.

The director added that teachers have been able to have conversations with preschoolers about physical space and the importance of distancing.

“They know there’s something going on out there in the world,” she said. “They don’t seem to be too concerned with it.”

Each classroom at Stony Brook Child Care has its own play yard so classes can go outside whenever the teacher feels it’s appropriate instead of waiting to take turns, which she said is also a big help. Cain said she’s surprised with how smoothly things have gone.

“With knowing every day there was new information and new guidelines, I didn’t think it would go as smoothly as it has,” she said.

Rivkie Grossbaum, preschool director at Village Chabad Center for Jewish Learning in East Setauket, said she is grateful that for the past year the school has more space than it did in its earlier days to help with social distancing. The preschool was established more than 30 years ago, and Grossbaum worked out of her house for one year and then from the Chabad’s Lake Grove location, which was smaller than the current space. The Chabad’s new location opened in June 2019 on Nicolls Road.

In addition to utilizing the indoor space, the preschool recently installed a new playground dedicated by Investors Bank. The director said it will enable even more outdoor play, which she said is important during these times, and each child will have separate bins so teachers can divide supplies such as crayons and clay.

While the preschool closed back in March, Grossbaum said she is happy that they’ve been able to reopen as she believes the relationships formed during preschool are important, and the staff is ready to help community members of all faiths.

“We may have more children if other schools don’t have early childhood programs,” she said. “We are willing to help in any way.”

Maddy Friedman, educational director of Play Groups School in East Setauket, said students were excited to return to school Sept. 14. Before the first day, teachers sent videos to their students to show them how they look with and without masks. While preschoolers are not required to wear masks, Friedman said if parents want their child to wear one, teachers will leave it on as it’s important to respect families’ wishes, “because we really don’t know the answers.”

Friedman said like other preschools, Play Group is also incorporating more programs outside on its half-acre of land which allows for socially distanced play. Friedman said teachers have used outdoor learning regularly in the past, and there are distinct areas to view birds and read books. There is even a stage and garden cupola.

The educational director said when schools first closed down due to the pandemic, she was hopeful that the shutdowns wouldn’t last long, and she never imagined the school being closed for months with teachers using remote learning tools such as Zoom and Facetime. Despite her being proud of her staff in “expertly” using the digital platforms as well as keeping in touch with families via traditional snail mail, she said she doesn’t feel it’s the best way to teach. Friedman said she was desperate to see schools open because she said it’s important for children to be with others their own age and have a “sense of classroom community.”

She added that children lost out on a lot with virtual learning, including end of the year activities such as taking a train trip into Port Jefferson and going to Theatre Three.

“I think it was a loss for the children,” Friedman said. “They adapted, but I wouldn’t look to do it permanently. However, it filled the gap and kept us connected to the community.”

The staff at Play Groups School

By Donna Newman

There’s something unique about a preschool that is still serving children on the North Shore of Long Island three quarters of a century after its founding. Through the years, Play Groups School became a family tradition for many in the area, with two or more generations counted among the school’s “graduates.”

On Saturday, Feb. 29, Play Groups School will celebrate 75 years of offering generations of students their first school experience with a Gala at The Old Field Club in Setauket. Invitations were sent to all those for whom contact information was available, including former teachers, former students and their parents. More than 110 people plan to attend.

The Play Groups saga began in 1944 when a group of parents decided to organize a “play group” where their children could learn through play with their peers. According to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell, whose brother was a member of the group in 1949, the children met at a small cottage near the Old Field Club. Perhaps that is why it was called the Old Field Nursery School in the early days. The first teachers were Dora Underwood of Port Jefferson and Joan Cockshutt of Setauket.

Play Groups was formally organized in 1974 when it was awarded an Absolute Charter by the New York State Department of Education and granted not-for-profit status from the IRS via a 501(c)(3) determination letter.

By 1986 the school was moved to its current location on Old Post Road in East Setauket, a building designed specifically for preschoolers. The school earned licensing by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services in 1992, and accreditation by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) in 1997. 

Play Groups Director Maddy Friedman has been at the helm for the last three decades, during which she has introduced many new ideas and concepts that keep the school continually evolving as times change. Yet, she says. the original focus remains unchanged.

“It has been my honor and privilege to lead Play Groups School these many years,” said Friedman. “While striving to stay abreast of current research and best practices, some things  have remained constant throughout. For young children play is essential for learning. It’s the way to develop creativity, curiosity, problem solving, social and emotional skills – and a lifelong love of learning. Our highly trained staff embrace this philosophy; they are at the core of our longevity and success. Our parents bring their time and talents to the classrooms and to the board.”

Friedman went on to describe one of her favorite innovations – one she feels is an extraordinary addition to the Play Groups program. “Acknowledging young children’s fascination with the natural world, nine years ago we added an  Outdoor Classroom to our facility,” said Friedman. “Through a collaborative effort, we created a space to encourage this relationship and engender a sense of stewardship the children will carry with them throughout their lives.”

Much more than a school, Play Groups is a family. 

Now retired Play Groups Business Manager Kathy Rademacher spent more than 25 years working at the school. She spoke of the deep, long-term relationships formed between Friedman and so many of her students and their families. “Play Groups played such an enormous role in my family’s story,” Rademacher said. “My son attended the preschool for three years, later completed his Eagle Scout project at the school, and worked at the summer camp as a lifeguard and counselor. Now, my son and his beloved – they met in the “Raccoon Room” in 1992 – are making wedding plans!” 

There are many stories of lasting friendships created at Play Groups School and Friedman expressed her pleasure and gratitude about that.

“It has been my personal joy to develop relationships with the children and their families over the years,” said Friedman. “Many staff members (both school and camp) were parents or students here at Play Groups. We so appreciate the trust that families have placed in us.”

School board members Sarah Russell Funt and Heather Snyder Ippolito are creating a walk down Memory Lane for the Gala. Funt is preparing a slideshow of photos taken over the past 75 years. Her husband Jared is a Play Groups alum and all their children have been, are, or will be Play Groups students as well. 

Ippolito is creating a display of memorabilia gathered over the years. A new member of the Play Groups family, she and husband Chris look forward to beginning the tradition for their family.

At the heart of the Play Groups tradition lies a goal common to both parents and staff, said Friedman. “We all share great respect for this magical time in a young child’s life and we work to make these preschool years full of memories to treasure.”

Photos courtesy of Play Groups School