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Chester County Press

Playing their way through school

09/14/2017 11:07AM ● By J. Chambless

Bubble fun in the Blue Room.

By Nancy Johnson

For years, early reading and mathematics were made part of preschool and kindergarten, but now many child psychologists and educators are praising play-based early childhood education. They say it's an environment in which children gain self-confidence and a curiosity that stays with them throughout their lives.

This is not news to anyone at Charlestown Playhouse. Founded in 1936, the preschool and kindergarten has always been based on the belief that children learn through play. Elizabeth Stonorov, better known as “Miss Betty,” built the school around that principle, combined with a cooperative atmosphere in which children learned to appreciate what each individual brings to a community.

Although its official name is Charlestown Playhouse, the school is more often called the Charlestown Playschool, or just Playschool. Stonorov designed it as a cooperative school in which a parent from each family was expected to assist in the classroom one day each week. In addition, all families helped throughout the year with fundraising events and maintenance at the school. This allowed a much higher adult-to-child ratio in the classrooms, kept tuition costs down, and built a strong community.

Playschool evolves with family life

In the early years of Playschool through the 1950s and 1960s, most mothers did not work outside the household, so the co-op obligation was easy to fulfill. Today, administrative director Faith Koons said that Playschool has evolved the co-op obligations without sacrificing the benefits for children.

Founder 'Miss Betty' as she opened the door to greet the children. (Photo courtesy of Charlestown Playhouse)

 “We’ve become very flexible over the years so we can meet the needs of our current families,” she said. “The basic premise is that one parent from each family would help in a classroom, not the one in which their child is, one day a week for the whole school year. However, if they can’t do that, there is a buy-out option. They can pay for someone to take their place and yet we still have the ratios of children to adults that we prefer.”

Koons was a teacher at Playschool for 16 years before moving into her current role of administrative director that she has held for the past 10 years. She has two grown daughters who attended Playschool and is also an alumnus herself. She remembers when families told her they were sad that their children could not experience Playschool, but that two working parents made it impossible.

But now they can! Playschool has evolved over the years because of the needs of our applicant families,” she said. “No family should feel uncomfortable about using the buyout option; they are still part of this wonderful program and many help in other, behind-the-scenes ways.”

Koons added, “This is a director-run co-op, as opposed to a parent-run co-op. [Parents] don’t run the school, but they help us to maintain the property and the grounds with work parties and our bi-annual Charlestown Sale and other fundraisers. All this enables the teachers to give the best program to the kids because there are enough adults to do various activities with different children. For example, we can have the sand and water area and a paint station open at the same time. Children can choose if they want to paint for 30 minutes or only five minutes, versus if you only have two teachers and 12 children, they all paint at the same time because they can manage it better.”

Play-based philosophy in practice

Charlestown Playhouse was reconfigured and redesigned from a church by renowned architect Oskar Stonorov.

 Saia, who holds a doctorate in early curriculum development and child and youth studies, said, “I do have a hesitation in saying that our program is play-based, as that is very catch-phrased. I really think in essence what the program represents is progressive education.” “It’s important to realize that we are licensed by the Department of Education and we are not a licensed childcare center, said Amy Saia, education director. “So we have the flexibility to be able to support many things as a private, independent school, but one limitation is that we do not have extended morning or afternoon care [beyond 2:30]. So we look to our community to help working families with shared care or other arrangements for child care.”

She added that progressive education began with John Dewey, the “grandfather” of early childhood education.

Miss Betty was so far ahead of her time,” Koons said. “The value of a play-based program eventually became recognized through research many years after she founded Charlestown Playhouse.”

Koons and Saia have both been told repeatedly by elementary school teachers that they can identify children who attended Playschool. “Children can learn anywhere and they are OK anywhere, but what we have learned is that children come away [from Playschool] with a greater self-esteem and better critical thinking skills, so when they go on to other schools they may be more of an enthusiastic learner,” Koons said. “A lot of other programs don’t give children the autonomy that they have here; to think for themselves, make their own decisions.”

Koons gave an example of their approach to developing critical thinking skills. “A teacher in another program would put some objects in a dish of water and say to the children, ‘Let’s put these outside and freeze them because it will be cold overnight.’ Whereas, here, the teacher would say, ‘Let’s put these things in a dish of water and look at them tomorrow morning.’ Then in the morning, she would say, ‘Oh, what happened?’”

Children learned about mixing primary colors by 'driving' cars through paint.

 “They retain it better,” Saia said. “Plus, the children’s families are trying to create the same model in their home environment, so it’s fostered in the school environment and the home. That’s where the partnership really is at its pinnacle. The child sees the continuity and tries to be a problem solver at home as well.” By letting the children experience something for themselves and figure it out, they are learning critical thinking instead of being “spoon fed” information.

Children are also allowed to explore their own creativity here, more than in other programs,” Koons saed. “For example, they don’t do ‘cookie cutter’ art. Instead, the children are given materials for a project and they can make it any way they want without someone saying, ‘No, the jack-o-lantern only has two eyes.’ They can make it with eight eyes.”

Or not make it all,” Saia added with a chuckle.

Their creativity is not squashed down, so it is natural for them to come up with their own ideas,” Koons said.

When a family first visits Charlestown Playhouse, Koons and Saia stress the school’s philosophy that the grounding of all learning is social-emotional development. Key to developing a sense of well-being is having the opportunity to discover and investigate to determine if things are right or not.

A little bit of paint never hurt anyone.

 “When you are truly providing a play-based environment, there has to be the intention of what is the objective,” Saia said. She finds it important for parents to understand this, so they can see the transformation of the learning taking place.

We explain to parents that, when a child is playing with a particular toy, why it is a language arts, science or math activity,” Koons said. She pointed to a large piece of artwork hanging in the stairwell with a title posted above it -- Color Theory with Race Cars! “This is where the children were learning what happens when you mix colors together, but they did it by driving their [Matchbox] trucks through it,” she said, smiling.

Playschool serves about 75 families, with some families having more than one child attending. Most live within the Phoenixville, Great Valley and Owen J. Roberts school districts, but over the years, parents have driven from Downingtown, Pottstown, Collegeville, King of Prussia, and even Media so that Playschool could be their child’s first school experience.

Five classrooms, designated by colors rather than age, are housed in the historic building. Playschool is situated on more than two wooded acres, allowing for lots of outdoor play and exploration of nature.

Parents praise the program

I used to drive down Charlestown Road on my way to work at QVC and would pass Charlestown Playhouse,” said Andrea Guild. “I just assumed it was a theater group that performed plays. It wasn’t until I had a child and was looking into preschools that I discovered it was a school!”

It turned out to be a great discovery for Guild as her son Jack, 3 ½, is just completing a great first year at Playschool. She is a parent helper in the Blue Room (kindergarten) one day each week.

My son is an only child, and while we wanted him to be in a preschool program, I worried that five days a week might be too much and that maybe I should look for a program that was two or three days,” Guild said. “But it was a wonderful transition and the progression from September to now is amazing. Jack is much more interactive with the other kids and even knows the names of many of the children in other classrooms.

It’s been great for me to have one day a week in the kindergarten classroom and experience what it is like,” Guild said. “I will have to make a decision, when the time comes, whether to send my son to public school for kindergarten or stay here. I would love to be able to sit in a public school kindergarten and see what it is like. Just to see the difference; the rhythm of the day, how it flows, how much playtime there is.”

Guild found the Playschool community very welcoming to parents as well. It was discovered at a parents’ meeting that her background would be an asset to the annual auction, and Guild became donations chair for the fundraiser.

It was a really great way for me to meet so many of the parents and put faces with the names I know from the kids,” she said. Guild also praises Playschool’s Facebook page as a tool for meeting other families. “Someone will post, ‘Hey, anyone want to go for a walk after drop-off today?’ or ‘I am looking to borrow something. Does anyone have one?’ It’s a great way to get to know the Playschool community,”

Danielle Looper is a longtime Playschool parent of three children. She’s on year eight, and sad to think that her children’s time at the school is nearing its end. Although she only has one year left, she is sure that she, like many other families, will stay involved with Playschool.

She recalled that when her children went on to elementary school, both of their teachers told her, “They knew they were ‘Playschool kids’ because they were kind to friends and had a certain self-possessed way about them. That’s more important to me than going into first grade reading or doing math, because they all get that eventually.

As a mom, I think of Playschool as such an open door place,” Looper continued. “In public school, it is so hard to get to know the families of other kids unless they live in your neighborhood. But at Playschool, I know all the families from helping in the classrooms and at events. You just don’t get that at public school.”

Lifelong family friends are formed at Playschool. Most of the teachers were previously Playschool parents or even students there. Looper said, “We came to Playschool for that reason. My husband had a friend who had gone to Playschool as a child. He insisted we look into it for our children, insisting, ‘You have got to go there. They were the happiest years of my life!’ We came and met Faith. That was all it took – she was just so passionate.”

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