“We are heavily focused on social and emotional learning.”

Those are the words of Deedee Buscher, the Fox Valley Park District’s preschool supervisor.

Now let’s turn to a mom of three, Michelle Thorsen, whose youngest daughter is currently enrolled in the District’s Creative Play Preschool for 3-year-olds at Eola Community Center. Young Sydney is following in the footsteps of siblings Jack and Paige, who graduated from Creative Play and are now in 2nd grade and kindergarten, respectively.

“Sydney was my only one who hadn’t been in daycare, so she kind of needed to work on those social relationships and being with other kids who weren’t her brother and sister at home,” Michelle says. “She needed that before she could get into the whole school aspect of being in a routine. She’s definitely learned how to make friends, learned how to share her things and learned how to act in a different environment than home.”

That’s sweet music to Buscher, who at the end of 2018 oversaw the beginning of the District’s implementation of the Pyramid Model – a teaching and learning program that, in part, helps early educators build skills to support nurturing and responsive caregiving, create learning environments and provide targeted social-emotional skills.

Each of the FVPD’s 33 preschool teachers completed Pyramid Model training, including a “refresher” last August. In 2020, Pyramid Model trainers will visit the FVPD monthly to ensure the model’s implementation is going smoothly.

“If you build the relationships on the bottom, you’re meeting the most children’s needs,” Buscher says. “You’re building relationships with families and then you start looking at your environment. And then, as you go up and up, you’re going to get fewer children who need interventions outside of what you do.”

Fox Valley is one of the first park districts in Illinois to adopt the Pyramid Model. More and more school districts are using it and, soon, Illinois will become the 31st state in which it’s mandated, Buscher said.

“It’s everyday living and activities,” Buscher says of the model. “It allows teachers to help children build those social skills, learn how to get along with people, learn how to use proper terminology and be able to express their feelings.

“All your different academics can be pulled into those things, because when you’re working in a group, you’re talking, playing games, using your emotions … it’s cross-curricular and should just be part of your everyday learning.”

The FVPD’s preschool programs – Creative Play and Nature Play – apply the integrated teaching of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). Through STEAM, children develop skills and procedures for inquiry, prediction, collaboration, communication and creative and critical thinking.

The FVPD’s preschool programs are offered to children ages 30 months to 4 years (pre-kindergarten) and the curriculum is aligned with the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards. Creative Play is offered at Vaughan Athletic Center and Prisco and Eola community centers, while Nature Play – which focuses on nature, the environment, recycling and conservation – is held at Red Oak Nature Center and Blackberry Farm.

Five years ago, Chuck Tuura and wife Jennifer were walking along the Fox River Trail with 2-year-old daughter Tess, when they happened upon Red Oak and decided to stop in.

“When I saw they had the Nature Play program, I immediately knew I wanted Tess involved in that environment and culture,” Chuck says.

Now 7, Tess has since graduated from Nature Play, while sister Gwen is enrolled in the 3-year-old program at Red Oak.

“There’s this movement toward creative play and I definitely believe in that, and the nature play just adds a whole other element,” Chuck says. “The opportunity to go outside, stop on a trail and talk about animal tracks or a tree, those are learning moments as they occur in life.

“I just like the stimulation of being outside. It toughens these kids up. The weather’s real and it doesn’t go away. These kids are not bothered by a little rain or mud or snow. At pick-up time when class is over, they continue to want to play. The adults are all freezing and we’re like, ‘Let’s wrap it up,’ but we can see that the kids wouldn’t mind staying together for another 45 minutes.”

Around 400 children are enrolled in preschool programs across the District and Buscher strives to maintain the student-teacher ratio at 10 to 1 or better. Smaller class sizes allow teachers to better recognize their students’ individual traits and provide more collaborative opportunities through various learning activities.

“A child’s most important job is to play, for this is how they learn best,” Buscher says. “Through social and emotional learning, hands-on activities, books, singing, dancing and the gross- and fine-motor skills, the academics can be learned.”

For more information about the Fox Valley Park District’s preschool programs, visit foxvalleyparkdistrict.org/programs-events/preschool/ or contact Deedee Buscher at 630-966-4546. Registration packets for the 2020-21 school year will be available on Monday, January 13.