Children in the ‘young toddler’ group at the Illumination Early Learning Center ride a purple see-saw.
                                 Mark Guydish | Times Leader

Children in the ‘young toddler’ group at the Illumination Early Learning Center ride a purple see-saw.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

JCC’s preschool program nurtures early learners

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<p>A little girl tries to catch some bubbles in a section of playground devoted to young toddlers.</p>
                                 <p>Mark Guydish | Times Leader</p>

A little girl tries to catch some bubbles in a section of playground devoted to young toddlers.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

<p>‘We love science,’ teacher Amy Wall, seated at right, said on a recent Thursday morning as she and a group of 3-year-olds conducted experiments with water and honey and oil.</p>
                                 <p>Mark Guydish | Times Leader</p>

‘We love science,’ teacher Amy Wall, seated at right, said on a recent Thursday morning as she and a group of 3-year-olds conducted experiments with water and honey and oil.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

<p>In the shade of playground equipment, teacher Sarah Dombroski guides ‘older toddlers’ in the strumming of a ukulele.</p>
                                 <p>Mark Guydish | Times Leader</p>

In the shade of playground equipment, teacher Sarah Dombroski guides ‘older toddlers’ in the strumming of a ukulele.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

<p>Teacher Alecia Morris plays with ‘older toddlers’ and a parachute.</p>
                                 <p>Mark Guydish | Times Leader</p>

Teacher Alecia Morris plays with ‘older toddlers’ and a parachute.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

<p>A youngster slides down a sliding board in the outdoor playground at the Illumination Early Learning Center.</p>
                                 <p>Mark Guydish | Times Leader</p>

A youngster slides down a sliding board in the outdoor playground at the Illumination Early Learning Center.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

<p>Illumination Early Learning Center director Annemarie Carl talks about the program.</p>
                                 <p>Mark Guydish | Times Leader</p>

Illumination Early Learning Center director Annemarie Carl talks about the program.

Mark Guydish | Times Leader

When teachers arrived at Illumination Early Learning Center in Kingston last week, they found signs that seemed to have mysteriously sprouted from the ground near their parking area.

“It takes a big heart to help shape little minds” was one message. “Thank you for being a good influence” was another.

“Thank you for being generous,” the messages continued. “Teaching is a work of heart.”

It was all part of Teacher Appreciation Week, which Illumination Early Learning Center, housed in the Friedman Jewish Community Center, celebrated with catered lunch, fine chocolates, gift cards and plenty of gratitude for the 23 teachers who care for some 120 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years.

“We couldn’t do it without our teachers,” said Mary Clarke, assistant director of the learning center. “Every day is Teacher Appreciation Day here.”

“One thing we’re most proud of is how much people trust us,” learning center director Annemarie Carl said. “We’ve had to stop people from coming in during the pandemic, and they’ve trusted us with their children. I get all teary thinking about it.”

“I have 1-year-olds come to the door and (here Carl demonstrated a cheerful, no-tears wave) ‘Bye, Mom.’ You don’t have that everywhere.”

“We have a strategy, because a lot of what we do is membership driven,” Gary Bernstein, CEO of the JCC said. “With the early learning center, you get young families to join. Hopefully they stay with you through pre-Kindergarten, children’s programs, teen programs.”

“People trust us. People respect us,” Bernstein said. “They know this is a safe, educational and nurturing environment.”

“This is one of our core businesses,” he said with a smile. “It’s something we do great at.”

As visitors toured the learning center during Teacher Appreciation Week, one stop was a classroom for 3-year-olds, where teacher Amy Wall was completing an experiment in which the children added different ingredients to a container of water, to see which had greater density.

“The honey went to the bottom and the oil floated on top,” Wall said. “We love science.”

“Let’s give it a color,” the teacher said, as a half dozen preschoolers watched her use a drop or two of food coloring to turn the water blue.

“If I put yellow in this,” Wall asked, “what will I get?”

“It would turn green,” a little girl responded.

“What if I put red and blue together?” the teacher asked.

“Purple,” a boy called out.

“You guys are so smart,” said Wall, who was rather obviously smiling behind her mask.

The room was filled with child-size furniture that included a small-scale “kitchen,” books, toys, plants, and a wall chart that showed which child would have which duty for the day, from “story chooser” to “light monitor” to “gardener.”

“Everybody wants to be the ‘door holder’ today, ” Wall said, explaining why there were several names listed by that category.

While that small group concentrated on science, other groups of children romped outdoors with their teachers inside a fenced-in playground. Some youngsters chased after bubbles a teacher created with a hand-held bubble maker; some rode a plastic see-saw or slid down a sliding board, andothers took turns strumming a ukulele.

“I let them play it, to learn about tempo and rhythm,” teacher Sarah Dombroski said.

Annemarie Carl, the director, pointed out areas where, in warmer weather, the children will see beans, zucchini and other plants grow in raised beds. “They love the cherry tomatoes,” she said.

“It’s a very natural playground,” Carl said, pointing out the mud pit and the splash pad, the tunnel that will soon be covered with vines, the kayak and dock that encourage imaginative play and the tee-pee shaped structures that are good for climbing.

“They develop gross motor skills and fine motor skills,” she said. “We have arts and music and lesson plans.”

The Illumination Early Childhood Center is open to children of all denominations, Bernstein said, stressing that the middle part of the Jewish Community Center’s name is, after all, “community.”

“When I was in Omaha, Neb., a golf pro had a kid (in a program at the local JCC) and he wasn’t Jewish but he got a kick out of his young kid knowing some Shabbat prayers,” Bernstein said. “It’s not really a Jewish thing. It’s about enjoying and respecting different religions and cultures.”