SYC\’s Social/Emotional Umbrella

When we give tours and talk to people about SYC, it’s always a bit hard to describe who we are and what we do. We mostly play so we call ourselves “play-based” but that has come to mean so many different things: from all play all day with no structured parts of the day, to a brief time when kids are allowed to “play” in certain centers with certain materials in a certain way until a bell rings. It’s hard to describe exactly what SYC is – maybe you’ve found that to be true, too. And while the core of who we are has remained the same, sometimes we’ve found it helpful to reexamine how we define ourselves in relation to other programs out there.

Each year, usually in the spring, our staff engages in professional development that might involve attending a workshop or conference, visiting one or more schools, or meeting with other early childhood professionals to discuss what we do and why. These experiences offer our staff more than just the few hours spent observing and listening. They bring on conversations among our staff that challenge and question what we do and why we do it.

We’d like to tell you about three of these recent visits, the conversations they sparked and what we’ve learned about ourselves in the process.

A few years ago, our staff travelled to Cincinnati to tour and meet with the staff of two project-based schools where kids engage in months-long investigations of a particular topic. It’s not what we do, but it was interesting to see. During the course of the conversations with the other teachers, we tried explaining how what we do is different. We talked about acknowledging all feelings, about setting and listening to limits, about learning to get along in a group. At one point, one of the Cincinnati teachers said, “Oh, I see. Social and emotional development is your umbrella – everything you do is seen through the lense of social and emotional development.” Yes! That’s who we are and what we do, though it had been a while since we put it in those words. Having that framework, though, has helped us see ourselves in relation to other programs as well as to make sure we’re maintaining the focus within our own program.

Last year, we visited a preschool in Baltimore whose focus is totally on child-led play. They believe that children need a place and time where there are few if any limits to what they can do. Their program has no structured parts of the day: no small groups, no rug time or story time, no sit-down-snack. When seen through a lens of child-led play – their umbrella – this totally makes sense – they don’t want to have anything impact the time that’s set aside for play. In the weeks and months following the visit, our staff has reaffirmed our belief in play as well, and our desire to to save aside as much time as possible for it. However, through the lense of social and emotional development, we also see value in the small communities formed during small groups, in the shared experiences of story time or rug time. This visit encouraged us to examine if there are ways that we could devote more of our day to play without sacrificing the social and emotional support provided by the few structured parts of our day.

Finally, this summer the two of us visited Roseville Community Preschool in Sacramento, California. Roseville was the home of Bev Bos, a mentor to several generations of SYC teachers. Bev believed that, given the freedom to explore and play, children will learn exactly what they are ready to learn, they don’t need adults pushing them onto the next task. Our visit reconfirmed our belief in the individuality of each child and our trust in their learning process. We were reminded of the importance of an engaging and inviting environment, and again of protecting the time for play while maintaining our umbrella of social and emotional development.

Upon returning home from our most recent trip and as we began to prepare our office for the school year, we stumbled upon some of the historical SYC documents. One written by Julia Sonner Sheppard called “S.Y.C–School for Maturity” in her article from 1976 she describes SYC as such :

“Janet Stocker and Lee Row, co-founders of the preschool, begin with the premise that preschool is for individual emotional and social development rather than for academics or ‘school situation’ training. A child who has his own feelings sorted out, his own sense of identity, his own self-control and his own self-direction can go on to academics with the fewest stumbling blocks. It is much more difficult for a child to be faced with academics while he is still struggling with basic emotional and social development. Try teaching the alphabet, for example, to a child who is on the verge of tears because his mother has abandoned him to unfamiliar teachers and strange surroundings.”

“Verbalizing his own needs and feelings and listening to the needs and reactions of others demonstrate cause and effect to the child. The opportunity to make choices also teaches him the results of his decisions. Recognizing the consequences for his actions is of the the steps in a child’s learning responsibility.”

The culmination of these experiences has us looking carefully at what we are doing, making sure that we’re making the best use of the little time we have together in a way that aligns with our philosophy. As we continue to learn and grow, some classes may tweak their schedules or their structured parts of the day in order to maximize the time set aside for play, while keeping our social/emotional umbrella in mind. As a staff, we’ll be talking with each other about what we’re doing and how it works, we’ll be sharing ideas and support. We’ll keep you informed and welcome feedback as we go. Ask questions, make suggestions. This is your community, too.


– Susan Roscigno and Amy Rudawsky, SYC Co-Directors