At Katonah Playcare, preschoolers play with purpose

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Jeannine DiBart and Gail Porter are co-directors of Katonah Playcare. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Jeannine DiBart has spent over 15 years of her life in preschool, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

DiBart’s first job out of college was at Katonah Playcare, an early learning center for the nursery school set. The North Salem resident was hired by Gail Porter, one of two partners at the school. DiBart could not have imagined back then that she would one day run the school alongside Porter.

DiBart spent a couple of years at KPC before taking a teaching job at Wooster School in Danbury, but continued to stay in touch with the Katonah Playcare staff. Before long, Porter asked DiBart to return as a curriculum consultant and literacy developer. So much was changing in the world of education, and Porter wanted to ensure that Katonah Playcare was keeping pace.

The decision to return was an easy one. “[Katonah Playcare] was always a place that was very special to me. I always felt very connected,” DiBart said.

Opportunity continued to present itself. A few years after re-joining the staff, Porter’s partner made the decision to retire. DiBart had the opportunity to step into the role.

Over the many years that Porter and DiBart have since worked together, they have seen hundreds of children come through the doors of Katonah Playcare. The duo oversee a staff of 12, who run seven classes across ages 2, 3 and 4.

With their collective decades of experience in early childhood education and development, Porter and DiBart have seen it all. One thing DiBart says she has learned over and over again about preschoolers –and that may surprise people less familiar with early childhood development–is, “they very much are who they are.”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

“They have formed so much of themselves,” she explained. “You have to honor that they are a person, with ideas and thoughts and feelings. And we want to know those things about them.”

Porter recalled a student she had years ago who, even at a very young age, had obvious artistic talent. Two years ago, that student, now grown, had a showing at the Katonah Museum of Art. “The whole staff remembered her,” Porter said. “We knew when she was with us that she was going to be an incredible artist.”

When students are at Katonah Playcare, which follows a play-based model, the play is purposeful. “It’s not free play,” DiBart emphasized. “Play is important, but it only works if the teacher knows what to look for and is setting up situations correctly in the classroom environment. The teachers in there with them and alongside them are doing constant assessment. ‘What are you doing and let me think about why.’ The question of why permeates everything we do in the school.”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

Sometimes a project may be initiated because teachers are looking at students’ fine motor skills. They may be trying to assess who was listening at circle time and absorbed the lesson.

“Our teachers are constantly being purposeful with what’s happening. If that’s not happening in a classroom, you’re not moving forward,” DiBart said.

It was particularly challenging to move forward over the past couple years, as the pandemic brought severe disruption to early childhood education. Many families opted not to send their youngest children to preschool. Now, as students are in the classroom–some for the first time–Porter and DiBart have noticed how the pandemic has uniquely impacted this cohort.

“During COVID, parents didn’t really know what to do to give their children social skills, so they started drilling the alphabet and numbers. But the social piece was missing,” Porter explained.

Many of the children who are currently in the 4’s program, who were 2 when the pandemic began, had not spent time in a classroom setting prior to this September. “They were having trouble making friends or knowing how to function in a classroom,” DiBart said. “They were kind of all over the place. Our 4’s teacher said, ‘all we can do is let them play; they need to learn how to play.’”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

KPC’s youngest children are 2020 babies. Their language is not as developed as children from previous years, but by and large DiBart said they are doing beautifully. Their parents? They’re adjusting. “The parents stand outside some mornings after drop-off for 45 minutes talking to each other. They are desperate for that community,” she said.

A sense of community at Katonah Playcare is essential not only for parents and children but also for the center’s staff. Most of the staff has worked there for a very long time; one teacher has been there for 30 years. “We are very much connected as a staff,” DiBart shared. “My kids laugh because my phone is constantly dinging at night and it's us [staff] sharing family pictures with each other.”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

“I think it’s important to the whole school’s success,” Porter said of the staff’s deep bonds with one another. “The kids feel what the teachers feel as well.”

The connections first formed at Katonah Playcare often persist well after the students move on to elementary school and beyond. Partly that’s facilitated by the center’s physical existence within the heart of the village of Katonah. Classes take field trips on foot to the local flower shop, toy store or bakery. Partly it’s due to how intimate the home-school relationship is when children are very young.

“Early childhood, even more so than elementary school, you do get really immersed in these people’s lives,” DiBart said. “You get very connected and really close with these families. Parents are in our office all the time. They come to us looking for guidance, or another take on things. They really trust us; it’s much more than just their child being at school.”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

The effects of these deep connections sometimes extend even through generations. There are those adults who attended Katonah Playcare as children, now returned to register their own children. Sometimes the connections spark new families. “We have two people who went to Katonah Playcare together, they grew up and got married and now their child goes to school here,” DiBart said.

For all the warm and fuzzies, Katonah Playcare is still a business, with a vulnerable clientele, foundational skills to foster in them and what can feel like an ever-growing list of standards and expectations to meet in preparing children for the real world. DiBart and Porter welcome all of it. “People can really see that Gail and I truly love what we do,” DiBart said. “We all come in every morning and are happy to be together. It’s our happy place.”

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