Preschool plans new infant room as a soothing, stimulating space

At the Shirlee Green Preschool at Congregation Shaare Emeth, Randy Green, son of the school’s namesake, cuts the ribbon for the new K’Tanim infant room.  Stacy Taeckens, a teacher at Shirlee Green Preschool, is shown standing at left. For more photos, visit Photo: Yana Hotter 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

 As a full-time public school teacher, Chelsea Silvermintz is happy that her 3-month-old son Sawyer has a place to stay while she’s at work.

“I’m so glad they have it. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” the Ballwin resident said. “There are places that will take him, but this place is exceptional.”

That exceptional place is the K’tanim Room at the Shirlee Green Preschool at Congregation Shaare Emeth. The facility, which opened earlier this month, provides care for infants as young as 6 weeks old. 

“In doing research in the community regarding other infant rooms, I knew in my heart that I really wanted it to look like a soothing, comfortable and embracing nursery room,” said Karen Lucy, the school’s executive director of early childhood engagement. “I did not want it to look like a converted classroom.”

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The innovation is one of a number of changes being overseen by Lucy, who is a relatively new addition to the staff after spending seven years at Temple Israel as a preschool teacher and camp director. The mezuzah was affixed in the infant area Feb. 28, and the room opened three days later.

Lucy said a lot of thought was put into the project. Even decorating details weren’t left to chance.

“Every time someone walks up to the threshold, their attitude changes,” she said. “We use soft lighting. We have the walls painted soft colors. Soft music is playing in the background. 

There’s even an air purifier and humidifier. We just made it perfect for young children.”

The room is part of a general strategy at the preschool to engage families in a broader way. In fact, the organization offers programming for all children younger than 6 whether they are enrolled at the school or not.

“We’ve had some wonderful transformations in the past seven or eight months,” Lucy said.

The K’tanim Room isn’t the only facilities change, either. A new exploration room focuses on science, and interactions between youngsters and animals. Resident creatures in the room include box turtles, guinea pigs, parakeets, a sugar glider and even Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

In January, children learned about eagles and developed an understanding of everything from nest construction to migration to how to feed wild birds. Activities stemming from the exploration room might include indoor games or hikes outside. 

Lucy said the exploration area isn’t just about teaching the children science but also about respect and coexistence with other living things.

“I can’t even begin to tell you what they’ve learned, because it is endless,” she said. “The most amazing thing is to watch it happen. For instance, they’ve learned so much respect and tolerance, not only for nature but for one another.”

Other innovations include a stronger focus on programming with family services, “Mighty Micah” minicamps during school breaks and “Tater Tot Shabbat” dinners. An in-house early childhood coach has been hired to coordinate developmental strategies with parents. 

A mitzvah garden has been established with four beds, three of which grow vegetables; the fourth is reserved for helping younger children learn fine motor skills through gardening. Produce is donated to the Jewish Food Pantry, and Lucy hopes to open seven new seed beds soon.

“Our overall goal for children at Shirlee Green is to obtain the Jewish values as a fundamental reason to go out and help others,” she said.

The hope is that Jewish preschoolers will become Jewish religious school students who will, in turn, become congregants and start the cycle again with their own children. It is also about engaging families with many ideas generated from focus-group conversations with parents.

“We try to keep the families social and available,” Lucy said. “Even beyond the monthly programming, if they are in need of any resources at all, we’re always available for them.”

Silvermintz said she loves the school’s personal attention to her child. They email pictures to her regularly to keep her connected to Sawyer when she’s at work.

“There is a huge benefit to him,” she said. “First of all, he gets the care that he needs. The people who are working there are very well-qualified. so he is getting the best teachers. Also, he’s getting a Jewish education.”