The New Well-Rounded Child

Our kids have it made when it comes to education — the opportunities for learning flourish in our towns. Looking at three primary arenas, we wondered at the transformation of the basics. First, we turned to Sherry Artemenko, language- development expert who guides parents trying to surf the waves of opinions and research studies. Then, for insight, we talked with technology guru David Pogue about the computer moving into the classroom limelight. Finally, we cover the range of creative pursuits, from dance to song to painting for kids, with a few examples of the many choices in our towns.

Maybe you call on your child to clear up a computer glitch or perhaps you ask your son for a six-letter word for “overwhelmed.” Or maybe your hallway is now a gallery of your daughter’s artwork. Whether you have a prodigy under your roof or just a well-rounded child figuring out his or her interests, there’s something here for everybody.

The Language-Development Science Behind Playtime
By Diane Sembrot

Curly-haired two-year-old nellie and her twin brother noah are sitting on the floor surrounded with toys, books, handouts and adults paying very close attention to them. it reminds me of a science experiment that might bust. Maybe it’s just that we are getting used to one another — after all, Helen and David Werngren’s Westport home couldn’t be more beautiful, the sun pouring in through the glass doors, a private Long Island Sound shoreline a penny’s drop away. Helen is attentive and casually beautiful as only a Swede can be. Sherry Artemenko, a language-development expert, smiles easily. The twins don’t seem to care about any of us, not with all the goodies at hand. “There are so many magazines and reports and studies,” says Sherry, who has been working with the Werngrens since the twins were born. “It’s hard for parents to keep up with all of the research. What I do is make it easy for parents. Mostly, I calm them down and encourage them.”

What she does is evaluate how parents and children from birth to three years play and then offer advice on how to use the time together to build language skills, for all kids, not just those with a disability — the twins, for example, the experience is educational not theraputic. Through her company, Play on Words LLC, which she founded three years ago in Southport, Sherry recognizes and adapts to each child’s uniqueness, works on boosting self-confidence and provides structure and meaning to playtime — and explains the developmental theories and scientific study results behind all the fun. With twenty-five years as a speech-language pathologist and holding a master’s degree in communicative disorders from Northwestern University, this certified member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, has earned the right to call herself a personal trainer. For a stressed-out parent susceptible to the guilties, she is a best friend.

Sherry is the kind of person I want next to me in a toy store. Pink fluffy stuff. Red flashing lights. What will my babes learn from these? Which will end up at the bottom of the toy bin? Sherry, with a quick, ready smile, reassures me that she can quickly pick out which are the most educational and most interesting — and say why.

“Parents should be the producers of playtime, not directors,” she begins. “They should set up different types of play areas and let the children create and engage in imaginative play. They should follow the children’s lead and then get them to talk about what they’re doing.”

At the book store, again, options galore. Colorful illustrations. Celebrity authors. Childhood classics. And Sherry has clear ideas. To help kids enjoy reading, it is
important to choose books that are age appropriate. Babies and toddlers enjoy interactive books (flaps, pop-ups, texture) that inspire touch, while older preschoolers prefer more of a story line. For preschoolers, try One Magical Morning, by Claire Freedman, for its vocabulary, rhythm, rich language and pictures. For toddlers, look at the Maisy or Max & Ruby books for vibrant colors, simple and familiar scenes, vocabulary and humor.

And $50 flashcards? Forget the sugar coating. “No,” Sherry answers, “they’re out of context with the world that children are exploring. In an age where children are bombarded with flashcards and videos, I share research that shows the best way to impart language is through play and experience.”

And the Baby Einstein videos? As unbelievable as it is to me and even some of Helen’s friends, the twins have never watched television. The reason is simple: It distracts them from creative playtime, a chance to interact and talk about what they are doing. Play is rich with opportunity to develop words and relate to their environment and express feelings.

Sherry concedes that parents do need quiet time to make dinner or get to the laundry pile, but creative play, such as dress up and art projects, occupy little ones just as well as, say, an episode of The Backyardigans (a witty, colorful, musical show that I’m actually going to miss).

And I concede there is something endlessly serene about watching the twins playing with their mother and Sherry, no rush, no distractions from a television or radio. I find myself wondering if my own children know this sort of thing is possible.

Every science has an intoxicating bit of magic: Nellie climbs into Sherry’s lap to investigate a book. They talk about what the book might be about. Sherry offers, “I wonder why Maisy has that apple,” to invite the little girl’s response. They linger on each page as long as Nellie is engaged, moving beyond what is written to anything that can be discussed. There are reasons for everything that is occurring. Words are repeated. Vocabulary is broadened. The value of comments affirmed. What I notice, more simply, is that when Sherry reads a book, Nellie and Noah listen rapturously, point enthusiastically and vocalize. It begins to feel like an infomercial — too good, too beautiful to be true. And, yet, it’s actually just the breathtaking moment when a child learns.

Technology: Computer Expert and Gadget Guru David Pogue Speaks Out
By Walt Kita
Westport resident David Pogue is a veteran of the digital revolution with more than twenty years of experience writing about computers and the internet. Now a weekly technology columnist for The New York Times and an Emmy-winning correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning, Pogue is also the author of numerous books in the popular “For Dummies” series of titles by IDG publishing, including bestselling Macs for Dummies. He launched his own series of humorous computer self-instruction books called the Missing Manual series, which includes thirty titles. In all, 3 million copies of Pogue’s books are in print, including his techno-thriller Hard Drive. Pogue spent part of the 1980s, tutoring celebrity “newbies” on how to use their newfangled machines. His clients included Mia Farrow, Gary Oldman, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Connick Jr. and Stephen Sondheim.

A 1985 graduate of Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in music, Pogue continues to write musicals and compose, though he spends much less time at his piano keyboard than he would like these days, because he is tapping away at his computer.

Pogue and his wife, Jennifer, a medical doctor, have lived in Westport for several years with their three young children, sons Kelly and Jeffrey and daughter Tia. Westport Magazine talks to Pogue about how computers have become a permanent fixture of the American culture, with particular emphasis on how the machines are used in the classroom.

Q: When the personal computer was introduced, the response was mixed. Has technology lived up to its promise?
A: Until recently I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question based on my personal experience, because my kids are only in first and third grades — and my answers would be colored by the fact they attend school in Westport, which is hardly an impoverished school system, by any means.

Here there’s no question that students have benefited from the personal computer. The machines are in every classroom; they’re fully integrated into the curriculum. Even very young kids learn some amazing things. They learn how to touch-type, they learn how to do research on the Internet, they learn the world is a much bigger place than they ever imagined.

Not every school system has met with the same success, largely because schools in less affluent communities can’t afford to buy and upgrade equipment or to hire or train teachers with knowledge of how to get the most from the technology. We’re fortunate to live in a community where that’s not an issue. In Westport and towns like it, there is no “technology divide.”

Q: Are traditional kinds of learning being forced into the background because of the computer?
A: There are two things that schools have to teach kids with regard to computers, and both are a challenge. Kids have to be taught about computers as computers — about how to use individual programs, things like PowerPoint, because those are the kinds of applications they’ll be using once they’re out of school and working in whatever profession they choose.

The second thing they have to learn is all those other subjects — English, math, social studies — in which the computer is a powerful research tool.

Contrary to what a lot of people feared, the personal computer and the Internet have spawned a renaissance in written communication. The Internet is all about reading and writing. I’m thinking about text messaging and all that communicating kids do with one another on the Internet.

As for the silly shorthand kids use — “R U there?” and “B4 U go, call me” — you could argue that stuff like that isn’t really writing, but to communicate effectively with a computer you still need to learn spelling, grammar and all the other skills associated with traditional literacy.

Q: Are there “must have” applications for children?
A: There are many, depending on the situation. I’m thinking about PowerPoint. I’ll admit the first time I learned my third-grader had to do a PowerPoint demonstration, I thought: Wow, in third grade they’re doing stuff like that? But then I said to myself, Hey, why not? It’s visual; it’s textual; it’s structured; it requires syntax. Old-timers may not like it, but it makes sense.

In high school, and even in grade school, kids are doing things like video reports. Sure, video can be frivolous, but it can also be serious. Like it or not, video is part of our culture and more and more children are going to grow up with video as a way of expressing themselves. The earlier kids are exposed to that kind of technology, the better. Building a web page, writing a blog — those experiences are all smart, because they teach kids literacy and about organizing their thoughts.

Q: Is there a place for computer games in a child’s educational experience?
A: I’m afraid this is another answer that may upset some people. I’m not sure about action-adventure games, but our kids have been on the computer since they were two years old. And they love games, one in particular, Dr. Seuss’s ABCs. They love it — it’s animated and funny. Thanks to that CD, they learned the alphabet at a crazy-early age. It’s important that parents not use the computer like a babysitter, that they not sit their kids down in front of the machine, walk away and hope for the best. We sat right along side of them and worked with them, so it became part of their daily routine.
Free games are available for kids online — math and spelling drills and things like that.

Q: How have parents benefited from having computers in the classroom?
A: Literally, in dozens of ways. At the Long Lots website, for example, there are three buttons labeled “for students,” “for parents” and “for teachers.” If your kid forgets his homework, he can log on and download the assignment in a PDF format right from the website. Students can also download examples of projects other students have done, to get a better idea of how to approach a subject. Parents can check up on the school bus schedule or the lunch menu, e-mail a teacher. It’s opened up the lines of communication among all three groups — and that’s a benefit to everyone.

The Arts: Growing Creative Expression (with so many choices)
By Tom Connor

Not surprisingly, the many artists who have settled and raised families in our towns are now sharing their love of art with local children. From home studios, church meeting rooms and commercial buildings, they’re offering a wide range of programs in the visual arts, music, dance, even architecture to children of all ages. Some artists and teachers see the proliferation of art programs as the result of the competitive nature of the suburbs and a desire to assemble college résumés early. In Fairfield County, that easily can be the case. But others see it as an antidote to the times we live in.

“Parents are looking for more outlets for kids, and especially creative and cultural outlets, to balance studies and sports and computers,” says Anne Connell, director of the Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan. “And it makes kids feel good about themselves to make something that’s beautiful to them and to others.”

Karyn Morgan, the chair of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Staples High School, says kids who find a connection in high school outside of their academic life, especially in the arts, end up being more successful in all aspects of their lives. However, she adds, extracurriculars, such as music, art and dance, should be practiced to “enhance and enrich a child’s life, not to enhance a résumé or college application later on down the road.”

Here is a snapshot of the many art programs for children to enjoy and learn from — all found in our area.

The county is alive with the sound of music by young musicians, and a Westport institution is Music for Children, started in 1972 as “a child-centered
program with a family focus.” Founder Mary Ann Hall offers twenty-eight-week programs from mid-September to mid-May for infants to young adolescents. Jennie Butler, a member of Hall’s first group, currently has enrolled her three-and-a-half-year-old triplets in Music for Children. “It seems,” she says, “to have given them a love of music it gave me.”

For older kids, as well as soulful adults, there’s Chris Coogan’s Good News Gospel Choir in Weston. The sixty-member choir, which includes teenagers from Weston, Westport, Easton and Redding, rehearse in Norfield Church on Wednesday evenings for ten weeks in the fall and spring, and perform at a number of area churches. The youngest member of the choir is Harrison Lipton, an eighth grader from Easton. “We all get together and sing all these soulful songs,” he says. “It’s totally the exact opposite of what you’d get in school, because most teachers come up with really crappy songs.”

paint the town
Our towns have also grown more colorful in the past few years. The Silvermine Guild Arts Center has programs for children ages two years through the teens in everything from drawing and collage to ceramics, jewelry, photography and print making. And although the Westport Arts Center is best known for its exhibits and concerts, it also offers workshops for young kids during school vacations, plus Art Factory, an after-school program for middle schoolers.

The kids up in Georgetown, ages four years and up, experiment with a wide palette of colors and materials at Paint, Draw & More. While over in Fairfield, Young at Art provides creative nurturing for children eighteen months to twelve years old and offers after-school programs at Fairfield public schools. All programs are based on the belief that art is the foundation upon which reading, writing and drawing is built. “Creative activity keeps the spark of the curiosity alive,” they proclaim.

Creative Castle, a combination retail store and art school in Fairfield, offers two programs: Mommy & Me for very young children and their mothers, and one for older kids. Creative Castle offers creative, multi-media art classes for children eighteen months to eleven years old, all designed to build self-confidence, encourage independent thinking, develop problem-solving skills, and enhance individual focus, concentration and fine motor skills. Each class offers age-appropriate, open-ended projects, with specific attention to the process, more than to the creative treasure the kids bring home to mom and dad.

Art classes, in general, offer the important lesson of self-expression, which is so well-suited to the young. Kids enjoy art, but also the self-confidence that comes with exploring new things in a positive environment.

“In New York, there’s pressure to get into the right preschool,” says Rianne Sappern, who moved to Fairfield from Manhattan a year ago and has two young children in the Creative Castle programs. “But here there’s no pressure. There’s just a wonderful mix of music and play and materials.”

in the swing of things
Dance studios in the area are growing in leaps and bounds. At the Academy of Dance in Westport, which instructs 300 children from three years to eighteen years of age, the Children’s Ballet Theatre program has produced and performed the Nutcracker each December for the past twenty-five years.

In Fairfield, the Connecticut Dance School and the Gotta Dance Studio for the Performing Arts teach kids from three years of age and up ballet, jazz,
hip-hop and belly dancing.

One of the longest-running programs is the Young People’s Creative Dance Group in Weston, founded in 1963 by Margaret Bisceglie on a simple premise: “The child is a natural dancer,” she says. “Our idea is to have them dance naturally to connect the body, the mind and the spirit.” Wilton and Georgetown host the Conservatory of Dance, the Wilton Dance Studio, and Brenda Froehlich’s Wilton Dance Studio, which offers creative movement for three-year-olds and their mothers; beginner ballet for kindergartners; jazz and tap for first graders; and pre-ballet, modern and hip-hop for dancers eight years old and up.

“Many little girls are signed up for dance classes simply because mom did it as a child, or maybe mom didn’t have the opportunity to dance, or ‘how cute they look in those tutus.’ Although the arts may appear to flourish in our area of the country, it seems as if the genuine support is only superficial,” says Brenda. “Little thought seems to go into the best reason for signing up for a dance class and that is that you are really supporting your child’s readiness to learn.”

She adds, “Both sexes need to be ready to learn when entering kindergarten. It is a real disservice to all those little boys who are denied the opportunity to be as
prepared as the girls are for the school experience. In dance class, children are taught to listen, wait their turn, to be kind to one another and to feel an improved self-image and gain self-confidence by achieving goals through trial and error.”

“Brenda’s studio is a safe, secure and healthy environment,” says Mary Bozzuti Higgins, a professional singer and the mother of three daughters enrolled in classes at the studio. “It’s given them discipline and self-confidence.”

When choosing an arts-related activity, it is important that the studio or provider place emphasis on the process and not the end product. Creative exploration thrives in an accepting environment — and so do the children.

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