Wesleyan Students Help Area Kids Get a Kickstart on Kindergarten

Amy Breitfeller ’19 interacts with Mohammed, 2 1/2, and his sister, Dania, 1 1/2, during a playgroup July 31 at Russell Library. Breitfeller was using a sand mixture to help children improve their sensory and physical development.

This summer, three Wesleyan students are helping local children prepare for a successful transition into kindergarten.

Through the five-week Kindergarten Kickstart program, Cara Bendich ’19, Amy Breitfeller ’19, and Emma Distler ’19 are working with area youth at four locations to improve their school readiness skills through the research-based, high-impact, low-cost innovative and nurturing preschool program. Associate Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman and three of her students first launched Kindergarten Kickstart in summer 2012.

For the summer 2018 session, students are hosting the Kickstart program at Middletown’s Bright and Early Children’s Learning Center, Town and Country Early Learning Center, and the Middlesex YMCA preschool. On Tuesdays, the students hold an additional playgroup at Russell Library for anyone in the community.

“Today we’re playing with moonsand, which is a mixture of flour, glitter, and baby oil,” Breitfeller said during a July 31 gathering at the library. “The children can feel and play with the sand, which promotes physical development and also aids in social skills with other children.”

Through a partnership between University-based research labs, Middletown Public Schools, and local community organizations, Kindergarten Kickstart aims to bridge the research-to-practice gap. The majority of the preschoolers will attend kindergarten this fall at Bielefield School, Farm Hill School, and Macdonough School in Middletown.

This year, the Kickstart mentors took advantage of an opportunity to shift from running their own stand-alone summer classroom to embedding the program into existing Middletown programs.

“We were able to use the methods and materials we have developed over the last six years, using a high-quality, play-based, research-informed curriculum, along with key practices like scaffolding children’s language and concepts and carefully supporting their emerging sense of self and their social skills,” Shusterman said. “The new model was very successful, in my opinion, because we were able to serve many more children and engage more deeply with the existing early childhood infrastructure in Middletown.”

The Wesleyan students poured their energy into creating thoughtful and delightful interventions that the children looked forward to each visit. During “World Travelers Week,” each child received a passport to travel to different countries. “They visited Italy, China, and the Amazon rainforest (which we explained extends over multiple countries). In each place, they learned how to say ‘Hello,’ ‘Goodbye,’ and ‘I love you’ in the native language and did an activity relating to the culture,” Bendich explained. “In China, they traced Chinese characters and in Italy they made pasta necklaces.”

During “Five Senses Week,” the children learned about their senses through activities. They used magnifying glasses to find hidden pictures, took turns smelling candles and guessing their scent, played animal noises bingo, and had to guess what was in a bag using just their hands to feel.

Although the program benefits area children, the Wesleyan students learn from the experience as well.

Distler, who’s double majoring in psychology and Italian studies, appreciates the hands-on experience she’s gained by enhancing the children’s cognitive skills and, most importantly, “being their friend,” she said. “Throughout the summer, I learned that patience goes a long way; however, I personally believe that creativity and being yourself are the true keys to success when working with children. Working with kids definitely makes one think differently. In college, it’s easy to take for granted the vocabulary and knowledge one has; but with children, one must make sure that the child fully understands the words you’re using; otherwise, you’re staring at a face with quizzical eyes. I’m glad that I also learned that even as an adult, we can still have fun!”

This is the second year that Bendich, a psychology major and education studies minor, taught Kickstart. “I had such a great experience last summer working with the kids, forming close bonds with them, and getting to know their families. It was also a great way for me to become more connected to Middletown and get to know the community beyond the campus.”

For more information on the program, email Anna Shusterman. Additional photos are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Cara Bendich ’19 works with Lydia, 4, on a craft project. “Working for Kickstart these past two summers has made me much more confident in myself and my ability to be a commanding presence in a room,” Bendich said.

Emma Distler ’19 plays an interactive reading and counting game with 4-year-old Isabella at Russell Library July 31. At the library, the students teach arts and crafts, literary crafts, math games, and “brain games.” This particular reading activity was developed by Angela Lo ’14.