Innovative Sarasota Preschool Aims To Prepare Kids For Life

Do not be fooled by the scheduled snack breaks and daily mandatory nap time: Preschool is not necessarily a walk in the park for today's tots.

Gone are the days of macaroni noodle art for the sake of macaroni noodle art. Today's kindergarten culture is rife with heightened pressure that has made preschool a more challenging terrain to navigate, with some parents fearing that one misstep could leave their child behind his or her peers on an ever-widening educational curve.

However, at The Learning Cottage, a Sarasota preschool that opened in August, a groundbreaking approach to early education known as Fusion Early Learning is transforming the way children prepare for elementary school by instilling them with a lifelong passion for learning and creativity.

"Preschool is now more important than it ever was, and it's putting more pressure on our children at a young age. Our goal is to provide a program that not only prepares our children for the future, but makes learning exciting and fun for them,'' says Aimee Muldoon, who co-founded the Learning Cottage with twin sister, Ashley Cabe-Yerkovich.

The sisters, who have a combined decade of experience in both teaching and managerial positions in early education, have preschool-age children of their own, which Muldoon adds provides them with a "full circle'' perspective as educators, preschool directors and mothers.

Open to children ages 1 through 5, The Learning Cottage is the first preschool in the nation, outside of the program's home state of California, to adopt the Fusion Early Learning Curriculum, a program designed to ease the transition from preschool to kindergarten while ensuring success in a variety of environments, including public school, home school, art school and private school settings.

"Right now, there's a huge gap where you go to one school and get basic ABCs, but then you enter kindergarten and are expected to know how to read. If you're not given the right skills, you enter kindergarten stunned, and that presents a real culture shock for the kids,'' Cabe-Yerkovich says.

The Fusion Early Learning Curriculum, she says, aims to bridge that disconnect by combining the popular philosophies of the Montessori and Waldorf early education programs to create a cohesive curriculum that balances a creative, teacher-directed approach to classroom education with self-guided, age-appropriate learning activities centered around play.

"That's why it's called 'Fusion.' It gives families the opportunity to leave the Pre-K setting, confident that their students are well prepared for any setting they enter in kindergarten, whether it be in a public school or an alternative curriculum,'' she explains.

Whereas Waldorf learning strategies are centered around teacher-directed, creative "fantasy play'' and classroom teamwork, the Montessori philosophy champions self-esteem and autonomy by placing teachers in the role of "guides'' who encourage children to explore ideas independently, and at their own pace.

Setting Learning Goals

In the Fusion program, children move in groups between three color-themed classrooms throughout the day, each of which presents a different learning goal that is related to an over-arcing theme that changes monthly. The red room focuses on art, theatre and music; the green room focuses on math, science and social science, and the blue room focuses on basic early literacy concepts including reading, writing and speaking skills.

The Learning Cottage follows the same classroom structure and monthly curriculum as its Fusion counterparts in California, and meets the Florida Department of Education's Standards for Four-Year Olds, as well as the Common Core State Standards for kindergarten students.

"We do two separate rotations each day, the first of which utilizes elements of the Waldorf philosophy. In the morning, the children spend 40 minutes in each classroom, engaging in age-appropriate activities with a teacher. After that, they have a snack and playground time, followed by a nap, and then the Montessori-inspired rotation begins. We enhance learning centers in each room to meet the learning goals from first rotation, and we set them up to be appealing to the children,'' Muldoon explains.

"By cycling between different learning environments, we're able to re-excite children every 40 minutes, as opposed to them just being excited to enter building in morning and then losing focus as the day goes on. This way, we have children who are constantly focused and excited to learn,'' Cabe-Yerkovich adds.

During the second rotation, children engage in creative activities that reinforce the lessons from the morning rotation -- all of which follow a carefully planned curriculum that introduces a variety of topics not typically exposed to preschool-age students. In November, Fusion Early Learning students embarked on a month-long culinary tour of the world, learning valuable academic and social skills while gaining unique knowledge about the food and culture of countries such as Thailand, India and Greece.

"We set the environment up by enhancing the preschool centers to meet goals for the month. Beyond that, we focus on character development and the simple life skills they need to grow,'' Muldoon explains.

Teaching A Global Perspective

During the month-long culinary world tour, Muldoon says the preschoolers were introduced to the "Foodscapes'' of Artist Carl Warner in the red room, where they also made their own food-themed artwork, participated in dances and played musical instruments from different cultures. In the blue room they became "chefs,'' learning writing skills such as letter recognition and sounds by studying cookbooks and writing grocery lists and menus using their new-found culinary knowledge. In the green room, the students learned to locate the countries on the globe and learned and participated in their cultural traditions, such as the Thai practice of removing one's shoes, bowing and saying "Wai'' as a greeting and sign of respect before entering a classroom.

"We've also utilized lessons about the daily life of people in Thailand to teach the kids basic life skills, like how to read a clock, for instance. All of them, a week in, know how to read a clock, which is something you typically find second graders doing. My own kids are reading clocks, willingly, and they're excited to about it -- and I’m happy to say it wasn't forced upon them. I implemented the lesson through a fun gaming show I call 'Oh, Clock!','' Cabe-Yerkovich says.

"You have to say it like this,'' she adds, drawing out the 'O' sound and pantomiming the hands on a clock with an enthusiastic flourish of her own arms overhead. "That's what makes it fun.''

Muldoon adds that age-appropriate learning and play activities related to the monthly curriculum are extended to the younger children, as well, in a single room that is organized into its own themed red, green and blue sections. She describes it as a "stepping stone'' to the room rotations geared toward the older kids.??"We tailor the curriculum to be age-appropriate for the 1- and 2-year-olds, as well. With them, we talk about things like how to have a healthy lifestyle and healthy bodies. We're talking about fruits and veggies this week. On Monday, we talked about keeping our teeth healthy, so we glued foods to teeth and then used toothbrushes with white paint to 'brush' them clean,''  she says.

Parents have been quick to take notice of the preschool education revolution taking place at The Learning Cottage. After three months in business, the school has multiplied from an initial enrollment of seven to more than 40 families.

Despite the rapid growth, Muldoon says that the Learning Cottage is committed to maintaining its classroom sizes below the state standards to ensure that each child's individual needs is well met. Classroom sizes are capped at 10 children in the 3- and 4-year-old classrooms at The Learning Cottage, though the state ratio allows for nearly double.

Emphasizing Organic

She adds that The Learning Cottage is also unique in that it is currently one of just two schools in the Sarasota area committed to serving organic snacks.

"Everything served here, from two different food groups, is USDA-certified organic and preservative free, and it's provided twice daily. We also provide waste-free lunches so that if it doesn't get eaten here, it gets sent home,'' Muldoon says.

The sisters say that The Learning Cottage's green commitment extends to using eco-friendly cleaning products and encouraging parents to participate in green practices -- including cloth diapering.

"We welcome eco-friendly practices. We have so many cloth-diapering moms, which I think a lot of preschools discourage because they don't want to have to deal with the sanitation, but we, on the other hand, we have a lot of experience with cloth diapering and encourage it. I'd say 70 percent of the children here are cloth diapered,'' Cabe-Yerkovich says.

All potty-practice policies aside, the dynamic duo behind The Learning Cottage is unwavering in their commitment to developing lifelong learners -- straight out of diapers, so to speak -- through a creative curriculum that gets youngsters excited about their education.

"We believe that play is so powerful. This isn't just about bombarding them with what they need to get ready for kindergarten. It's about creating an atmosphere that helps them reach goals through their own creativity,'' Muldoon says.

"Fusion is play; it is excitement. We see parents walk in to pick up their children, and all the kids want to do is talk about what they did for the day,'' Cabe-Yerkovich adds.

"It's as exciting for us as it is for them.''

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor living in the historic, colorful Gillespie Park neighborhood of downtown Sarasota. A Florida native, Jessi spent her childhood exploring the mangroves along the riverbanks of the Manatee River, and to this day refuses to live anywhere that is not within walking distance of a body of water. She received her BA in Art History from Florida International University prior to moving to Sarasota, where she channeled her passion for the arts into a writing career and found yoga to counteract the effects of hunching over a keyboard for days at a time. Today, when Jessi is not writing or teaching, she enjoys traveling, thrifting and indulging in the Bay area’s distinctive culinary and craft brewery scenes.
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