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A Step at a Time

Working on balance, coordination, taking turns and counting as they jump

Perhaps you recall reading about the summer camp workshop back in August 2017, which was operated by ESRA using ESRA volunteers, (all from the teaching field and related helping professions) to help the kindergarten graduates from Heftzibah, Netanya, get ready for first grade. It seemed that these children had not received adequate or appropriate tools that would enable them to succeed in first grade and beyond. Even though it was a last-minute arrangement, we believe that the 27 summer workshop participants did get a boost and a head start to help them begin their academic careers.

The two-week summer workshop was very successful. It provided the children with simulations about what first grade will be like, jamboree gross motor activities, music, food prep and cooking, practising fine motor skills, balance and coordination skills, and listening activities, as well as social and emotional preparation for first grade.

During the fall and after our evaluation of the summer workshop program, it was decided that if it was so helpful in the summer — why not have such a program all year long, and then hopefully, these kindergartners would be ready, confident and motivated to approach that huge challenge known as elementary school.

That is how the program First Steps was born!

During the fall months, I met with Nina Zuck, along with our professional early childhood educator and partner, Orly Manshury Tsoref, in order to build a program that would be flexible enough to offer individualized assistance to all of the children in Heftzibah kindergarten. The kindergarten is located adjacent to the Heftzibah community center. This small neighborhood is populated largely by Ethiopian-Israeli disadvantaged families.

Throughout the fall we dealt with all of the bureaucratic chores of accessing official entry into the kindergarten, permission from the supervisor and from the municipality, as well as from the kindergarten teacher herself. This is no small feat! We were all ready to go by Chanukah. 

By using hand-eye coordination as well as other fine motor skills these children are putting together the alphabet in order

Orly and I then spent several days in the kindergarten learning the environment, the physical setup inside and outside in the yard, and the psychological environment, as well as getting to know the 35 lovely children.

After analyzing our information about the children, it was determined that we would meet in the kindergarten once or twice a week in the morning hours, when the children were fresh and interested. We would work with the children individually, according to each child's needs.

Sometimes we worked outside in the yard with a larger group. Occasionally, we worked in various corners or centers in the kindergarten, developing and enriching each corner. We made these areas more inviting and age-appropriate for the children. The kitchen corner suddenly became accessorized with lovely fruit bowls and coffee cups, sponges and towels to wash dishes. It became an inviting corner for numerous children at the same time. The medical center became outfitted with a calendar, a telephone, an eye test perched on the wall, and many many medications in the cabinet.

We knew that the evaluations and profiles of the children could change greatly in a short amount of time and that our initial observations and conclusions should never be written in ink — after all, things were dynamic and ongoing. How right we were!

As the months passed, children who we had initially thought were developmentally delayed made huge strides, and many of the gaps were closed far faster than anything we could have imagined. A child who did not know how to hold a pencil properly learned quickly. Another child who could not take his left hand and put it on his right shoulder or put his right hand on his left ear ("cross overs") quickly became able to do so. Children who were not able to count syllables in a word, or could not recognize or label the opening sound of a word, learned to do these things in a short amount of time.

All of the children wanted to take part in these visits and to meet with us. They loved spending time in our small room with two tables and eight chairs. We had privacy and quiet and were able to work.

I am thrilled to say that when we arrive in the morning, the kids swarm around us with a warm welcome, hundreds of hugs and loving greetings. 

Practicing balance and coordination as well as gross motor skills

The staff has also profited from our visits. Not only did they watch what we were doing, but we always prepared games to leave in the kindergarten so that they could enjoy the new activities and props. They now feel open enough to ask us questions and seek our advice. Who would have imagined!

As a final note, I would like to add that when we close the door and we are with our small group of children, there is always lively discussion and words of encouragement and support throughout the session. The children are pleased with their performance, and each week we see advancement and progress. We are amazed — all we really had to do was to give them a chance and show them the way, and the children internalized the new information and techniques.

Working with eight children each session may not sound that significant in the big picture. However, it is very significant. For each of these children, it is significant — we may be determining their success in elementary school — and that is HUGE.

I want to believe that we are making a difference. I want to believe that when these children begin first grade they will sit confidently in their chairs and be able to conquer the missions ahead. They will have the social and emotional maturity to wait in line and to wait their turn. They will be able to deal with disappointment and frustration, as well as with the various tasks they will be expected to perform for school.

When visiting the kindergarten after the Passover vacation, my heart was warmed when the children ran to us as we came into the kindergarten and they asked us: "Where have you been? We have missed you so much!" 

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Sunday, 05 December 2021

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