New Paltz United Methodist Play School celebrates 50th anniversary

Helen Karsten with students at the New Paltz United Methodist Play School. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

It’s a familiar sight in the Village of New Paltz on Friday mornings, those little three- and four-year-olds hanging onto a rope to stay together as they navigate their way from the New Paltz United Methodist Play School on Grove Street over to Elting Memorial Library. There, storytime with Miss Bonnie awaits, after which the kids can choose a book to take home. It’s a tradition that has been going on for 50 years now since the preschool was founded in March of 1968. 

An anniversary celebration tea will be held this Saturday, November 10 from 3-5 p.m. in the church’s social hall. Refreshments and cake will be served and everyone in the community who has ever had anything to do with the school is welcome to attend. Helen Karsten, founder of the school and its first director, will be the guest of honor. A scholarship has been created in her name for the occasion.

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“I’d be delighted to see some of my students at the event,” she says, and in fact, according to Nancy Vance, the preschool’s current director, Karsten will be able to do just that, as one of the students from the very first class is planning to attend the tea. 

Karsten ran the school for its first 15 years, until it became necessary for her to work full-time. “I couldn’t work a part-time job running the school and work full-time at the same time,” she explains. “But I’ve always been available if they have questions; I won’t say, ‘if they need help,’ because they’re doing fine! They have a wonderful staff and wonderful leadership.”

The guiding philosophy of New Paltz United Methodist Play School remains the same now as it has been since the beginning: hands-on learning and growth experiences in an atmosphere of play that offers kids ages 2-4 an inclusive, multicultural, welcoming environment. There is no religious instruction given, and the school is operated independently of the church.

“The beliefs of Play School haven’t changed from what Helen created all those years ago,” says Vance, who has been a teacher there for 33 years and its director since the mid-90s. 

The kids do puzzles and show-and-tell, play dress-up and build with blocks, make crafts, sing songs, enjoy a snack time and do seasonal projects. For Halloween they had a costume parade through the church sanctuary while the organist played appropriately spooky music, and at Thanksgiving all the classes come together for a feast. The fenced-in playground outside offers outdoor activities and there’s not a computer screen or electronic device in sight.

“Maintaining a screen-free environment cost us a bit over the years, and kept some people from sending their children to the school,” says Karsten. “But that’s up to them: when a parent has a child who needs to have associations during the day beyond mom, you find the best place for that child to go. And we tried to make it the best place to come and play; that’s why we called it the Play School.”

The program began when the pastor of the church at the time suggested to Karsten — a certified teacher with experience working in local districts — that since the education wing wasn’t being used during the week, perhaps a nursery school could be opened there. “The pastor asked me and I put the school together,” she says. “But it’s always been totally open to everyone; there is no requirement to be a part of the church to be on the staff or have your child there. And I had plenty of staff eager to come forth and work with me.”

Her own son, her youngest, was preparing for kindergarten at the time and so became one of the first students. Back then, the “screen-free” dictum was about getting kids away from the television screen. “I felt at that time that it was more important for them to have the opportunity to associate with others their own age, their own size, with their own interests. It gave them the opportunity to be children, to be little people who want to do what they want to do. And we tried to provide the environment where they could expand their thought processes.”

Fifty years ago, she adds, the opportunities to bring children together to play were limited. “If you had a neighbor or a friend, you could swap play dates with them, but that didn’t get children the associations and the break from mom. Letting go of mom’s apron strings is a tough thing for some children who have been with their mother since birth. It’s hard when they enter school and are suddenly away from home all day, so this was a transitional opportunity.”

Karsten says she is pleased that the school has kept the no-screen policy over the years. “I am so glad of that. Children get enough opportunities to be occupied by screens. And they need to develop their own personalities, and not try to adopt somebody else’s. Children have been robbed of the opportunity to be creative and play, and because they watch so much on screens these days their focus is very different. We push them, make them grow up much too fast.”

The current director of the school and the teachers confirm that today’s children often have to be taught how to play with blocks and put a puzzle together. And as Karsten points out, a puzzle is play, but it’s also about solving questions, and about discernment and identification. “There’s a lot more to it than just putting the pieces together. It helps them to grow and in a playful way.”

The initial classes at the Play School in 1968 were for three-year-olds, who attended two days a week, and four-year-olds, who came for four. When parents began requesting more days — due in part to the desire for a kindergarten-readiness program and the increasing number of mothers entering the work force — a five-day week was instigated and classes for two-year-olds were added. The program follows the New Paltz Central School District calendar, beginning classes one week after the district school year begins and ending the first full week in June. There are also summer classes in July.

After leaving the Play School in the early ‘80s, Karsten went on to a 20-year career with Sears, managing the coffee shop there and working in sales. She raised four children and was active in local volunteer work, including serving three terms on the New Paltz village and town boards and holding a seat on the planning board.

The preschool she founded 50 years ago operates today with a group of teachers who say that the classes and staff become a family. “And that’s a very special thing that Helen started,” says Suzanne Welch, who works with the four-year-olds and began teaching at the school in 1984. “It makes it a community, and it has stayed that way. Many people have stayed friends after they leave here.”

Vance agrees, noting that her own son met his two best friends when they were all children attending the Play School. “Play school has been around long enough that one of Suzanne’s and my former students, Lindsey Williams, is now the teacher of the “twos,” and her kids come to Play School.”

“To have the children of my preschool children in my class is so much fun,” Welch adds. 

The rest of the staff is rounded out by Donna Portuese, who along with Welch and Vance teaches the four-year-olds, and Laura Czaplicki, teacher for the three-year-olds.

The official, stated purpose of the New Paltz United Methodist Play School is to initiate the interaction of young children and adults in a developmental environment, allowing them to become social beings through free play. The goals are to help children develop self-confidence and independence and to aid them in the growth of social and multicultural awareness, physical acuity and mental activity. The program is designed to assist children in making the transition from home and parent to school and teacher, and to make children aware of community service and help them develop community-mindedness. There is a focus on developing language skills and an awareness of art, music and nature along with the development of respect for the rights of others.

And despite the vast differences in the world that children of 2018 live in as compared to that of 1968, their basic needs as children have not changed, say the teachers of Play School. According to Welch and Vance, “their main reason for coming here is to learn things and socialize with friends; that has not changed with the years at all. Children still like to play!”

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