For 50 years, Milldam Nursery School, a cooperative preschool in Concord, has readied children for kindergarten — and for life — by following a guided, play-based curriculum that emphasizes, comfort, safety, and joy.
Here, there are no flash cards, no tests, and no pressures. Instead, the aim is learning to learn: first about yourself, then about your neighbors, and finally, about the world around you, both inside and outside the classroom.
This is a place where imagination rules, and almost every moment is a teachable one. A child’s red coat sparks a lesson about colors. Lining up teaches kids to count. A ride on an “alphabet train” introduces them to letters.
So while standardized tests put pressure on children to read and calculate at younger and younger ages, Milldam holds fast to its roots.
There’s a price to pay for hurrying the wonder years. And the Milldam community isn’t willing to pay it.
“It used to be that educators and parents wanted kids reading by a certain age, and if kids were not making progress by age 4 or 5, they worried,” says Kristen Herbert, director of teaching and learning for the Concord public schools. “Educators understand more and more, but not the parents yet, that this is not helpful. . . . Long-term, there is no effect on achievement.”
Concord kindergarten teacher Allison Forseter says her job is to enable curiosity, encourage exploration, and find out what children know and what they want to know — a continuation of the experiences children have at Milldam, which sends the majority of its graduates to the local public schools. “Education is a cooperative practice,” she says. “What matters to them? What are they interested in? Not everyone wants the same thing at the same time.”
The measure of success in school, and in life, goes beyond test scores and rankings, Forseter continues. “We want not just a high, academically achieving child, but a human citizen who looks out for those around them.”
This value is at the heart of Milldam Nursery School’s programs.
“When we meet with kindergarten teachers, they say our children are well-prepared,” says Kate Damon, the director and a teacher at Milldam who attended the preschool in the mid-1970s, when her mother served as president of the board of trustees. “They can tell the kids from Milldam because of the group skills they’ve come with.”
Damon, who began her career as a high school teacher and found her passion in teaching preschool, says part of her job is to help parents understand how play is used to foster curiosity and the ability to learn.
“The lives of kids are highly scripted by adults, a lot of organized activities,” Damon says, explaining why play is so important. “Play is fun. They’re motivated to learn, be a part of what’s going on.”
But she says Milldam also has changed with the times. Early intervention screenings, for example, help today’s teachers and parents identify children who may be at risk — developmentally, cognitively, or in other ways that inhibit learning — and connect them to support.
“The time for a child to grow into themself has shrunken,” Damon says. “If they can’t read, can’t pass the test, we pay close attention. . . . They might grow out of it, or they might need more support in kindergarten.”
Melanie O’Hare, the mother of three children ages 5, 3, and 2, and incoming president of the Milldam board, knew exactly what she was looking for in a preschool: no pressure and lots of fun.
“They’re little. They have time to learn,” says O’Hare, an attorney and now a full-time mom, who began reading to her children early but didn’t worry that if they weren’t reading on their own before kindergarten they would fall behind.
But she says she and her husband, Matt, also chose Milldam because it’s a cooperative: Every parent or guardian agrees to volunteer in their child’s classroom once a month; the school community becomes an extended family; and children learn to feel safe and comfortable with their friends’ parents.
Liz Gibbs, a mother of four — two girls who are entering fourth and first grades in Concord, and twin boys, enrolled in the 3- and 4-year-olds class at Milldam — says she was looking for a program that “let kids be kids.”
Before they started learning to read and calculate, Gibbs, a consultant who is now a full-time mom, says she wanted her children to learn about themselves, recognizing and naming their emotions, understanding how their bodies work, and learning to get along with others.
It turns out her instincts were spot-on.
“In first grade, you could see when reading really clicked,” Gibbs says of her oldest child, who wasn’t reading when she entered kindergarten but a year later had become an avid reader — and was jumping the reading level charts.
“I think it has a lot to do with her interest in and exposure to books and to reading,” says Gibbs.
Milldam teacher Sheilah McCauley says that self-awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to play well with others are the building blocks of her classes for 2- and 3-year-olds.
“We’re building the groundwork for these little people to be ready when they’re able to handle [kindergarten],” says McCauley of a class she has taught for more than 15 years. “We’re developing relationships with kids so they feel safe, want to be in school.”
Not that McCauley doesn’t appreciate the value of testing and assessments. Kindergarten teachers need an idea of what the children in incoming classes know, and need to learn.
But in preschool, as in life, the hierarchy of human needs is built on security, belonging, and love — not high test scores.
“The most important thing to know is that the teachers care about them, support them,” McCauley says.