NEEDHAM — When Karen Quintana, director of the Spanish-immersion Pine Village Preschool on Fourth Avenue, is asked her teaching method, how she gets through to such young, mushy minds — and she’s asked often — she always replies that atmosphere is key, friendship is crucial, and manners are a must.
“It’s funny, people expect you to say things like learning letters, reading, counting numbers — things like that,” Quintana said. “And those things are important, but what is most important is that the children are comfortable and that they learn as early and quickly as possible to get along with others. If they learn that, then the next stage is much, much easier.”
The next stage? Big kid kindergarten. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, more than 8,000 preschool students will transition to half-day kindergarten this year, and more than 70,000 will make the leap to full-day kindergarten.
“You could argue that it is the biggest transition of their lives,” Quintana said. “It can set the tone for how they do in elementary school for years. The basic things — and in our case, Spanish is integrated into all aspects, all subjects — can be taught. But you really can see the difference in a child who has been well socialized and one who is overwhelmed by the bigger school, the bigger classrooms and crowds. The first child always does better and learns faster, in my experience.”
Across Greater Boston, Quintana’s philosophy seems to be a common denominator among preschools and day-care centers.
Lori Howe, director of the new Creative Start Children’s Center preschool at Warren House in West Newton, says Creative Start uses a school readiness plan in which each student is assessed throughout the year in areas such as social-emotional development and literacy, so the child’s curriculum can be individualized.
“Parents are engaged in tracking and helping student development,” Howe said. “The goal is for the child to be ready to enter kindergarten. In addition, an extensive transition-to-kindergarten program helps parents and children understand how to enroll in and familiarize themselves with kindergarten.”
“It has to be the most important part of preparing these kids for the next level,” said Eileen Giliberti, who has owned and operated Little People’s Child Care & Preschool in Medford for 30 years. “There are other tricks to the transition, as well. For example — we do this, and I’m sure other preschools do, too — we’ve established relationships with nearby grade schools so that we can assist in any way we can with the transition for our students.”
If a kindergarten teacher at a neighboring public school has questions about an incoming Little People’s “graduate” — about shyness, mood, eating habits, or anything else that a teacher may have a better fix on than a busy parent — that teacher knows she can call Little People’s and get some insight on how best to help that child adjust.
And at the Bright Horizons preschool and day-care center on Crown Colony Drive in Quincy, the kindergarten prep program puts the kids through a boot camp of sorts, prompting them to use all or many of the skills they’ve learned in a single setting.
The point, center director Andrea Charles says, is to make the kids feel they’re at their sharpest.
“Ultimately, social and emotional well-being” are most important in fostering that feeling, Charles said.
In one recent exercise, children in the Crown Colony Bright Horizons program were tasked with working together to make “seaworthy” boats of aluminum foil and then load the boats with a cargo of pennies.
“Some even made duck boats,” Charles said. “They predicted how much cargo their boats would hold and still float or sink. They used their math skills to count the cargo. From that they drew their findings and wrote a sentence about how much their boats held. They used a little science, a little teamwork, some math and language skills. And all from one simple activity came this rich learning experience.”
Julie Mañes Bostian, whose 4-year-old son attends Pine Village in Needham and is preparing for kindergarten, is a big fan of the school’s transition strategy.
“I think that every parent goes into the preschool experience with goals that involve learning the alphabet and then learning words, and counting up to a certain number, things like that,” said Bostian, who is the director of stewardship and donor engagement at Boston College. “But what you learn quickly is that performance is often tied to comfort level. Honestly, I could see my son not being happy about the transition. But I’m confident that the socialization he’s getting at Pine Village is helping. He’s learning to be around people he didn’t always know, and he’s learning that’s normal and even fun.”
Bostian said she expects her 3-year-old daughter, also a student at Pine Village, to transition more smoothly to kindergarten, “because she is more naturally enthusiastic about school and the atmosphere. She is definitely more outgoing. But I expect them — both my children — to help each other.”
Julie Cataldo, who has had three children attend Little People’s Child Care in Medford, is also a big believer in siblings helping with the preschool-to-kindergarten transition.
“Of my three children, ages 10, 8, and 5, Jake, the 5-year-old, is still at Little People’s, but he will begin kindergarten in about two weeks,” Cataldo said. “Having his older siblings — especially since they attended the same preschool — has made all the difference in the world in his preparation and confidence.”
While every parent likes to think they are responsible for teaching toddlers numbers and letters, Cataldo said she credits her 8-year-old daughter with teaching Jake the alphabet. “My daughter plays school with him constantly,” she said.
As for overall preparedness and confidence, Cataldo said, Jake has for years already watched how his brother and sister behave, how they interact with “big” kids, how their efforts and friendliness are rewarded with play dates at friends’ homes.
“He wants all of that,” she said. “And he knows their social behavior started in preschool.So now he’s a little apprehensive. Some of that is natural, but largely he’s looking forward to starting kindergarten, to being on the bus. He’s really excited to meet new friends and get a shot at his own play dates.”
As for Little People’s, Cataldo said that Giliberti helps foster maturity and worldliness in the kids by having them do “real world” things or play in real world scenarios.
“Eileen brings people in to share their experiences and teach the kids,” Cataldo said. “There’s a yoga teacher, piano teacher, Spanish teacher, and so much more. It’s a way of normalizing things outside the walls of the school, and any time you can do that for a young child you’re building their confidence and helping them grow.”
On a recent visit to Little People’s, the children were participating in a luau.
“The kids are given context to how different people in different parts of the world do these things,” Cataldo said.
Brid Martin, a cofounder of the eight-location Pine Village operation, said that sibling interaction — something that happens less frequently as preschool kids “graduate” to day schools — is great for young children’s confidence, and that an increasing number of early childhood experts endorse as much family involvement as possible.
“It is one reason that so many of our programs factor in parents,” Martin said. “We understand people work. And that’s why there are preschools. But we no longer live in times when people want to drop their kids off at school and forget about them.
“Most parents want to engage at their children’s preschool, and for those who don’t take to it naturally, we encourage them by providing multiple opportunities, from plays to nature outings to even reading programs. Having a relative participate, especially a parent, helps convince children all the activity is just right.”
Jennifer Kirby, whose 4½- year-old son has one more year at the Crown Colony Bright Horizons before making the leap to kindergarten, said there’s more to the school than an aggressive, multipronged teaching style.
“This goes to the social aspect, but they intentionally foster a safe atmosphere,” Kirby said. “I mean safe in the sense of a comfort zone, and so among the other lessons, kids learn that it is OK to be wrong — to get an answer wrong. It said a lot about the atmosphere that a child who gets a wrong answer or doesn’t come in first place doesn’t think it’s the end of the world.
“They try again and learn the right answer,’’ she said. “And that element, that atmosphere is going to go a long way toward preparing them for kindergarten and for life into their adult years.”