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Growing Curious Minds: A Look at Play-Based Education at San Mateo Parents Nursery School

1 Jun 2024 9:32 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Like so many families in the Bay Area today, my husband and I are not from here. I joined the San Mateo Parents Club when my first son was born in 2017, and my first play date with him was holding his wee body in my arms at Fiero Coffee the day my mom flew home after her time here for postpartum support. I ended up volunteering as his playgroup coordinator, joining the Board, and as some of you know, served as President for a couple years. The parents and kids from my son’s and daughters’ play groups are still a huge part of our lives today.

This same desire to build community is what helped our family choose a parent-participation preschool, otherwise known as a co-op. I’m not going to lie, when I first heard the enthusiasm parents had for their co-op preschools, I was a bit skeptical. It sounded like a lot of work, and with a plan to have at least two or three children in quick succession, I didn’t know if a school that required my presence one morning a week would be the right fit. 

Then I went to an Open House at San Mateo Parents Nursery School and another parent from the SMPC was there, an Occupational Therapist whose perspectives on play-based, early childhood experiences and freedom of movement and choice mirrored my own as a Speech-Language Pathologist. Hearing her gush about the evidence-base behind the preschool was a good start, but it was the sincere joy and friendships I saw between the teachers, parents, and kids that moved my husband and I the most. 

As we left the event, I asked my husband what he thought, and he told me that community building through our preschool felt like the right choice. Both moms AND dads were involved in the Board and co-oping, and the teachers had all been parents whose children had attended as well. It seemed like SMPNS was more than just a preschool; it felt like an institution that we would be lucky to be a part of.

In 2023 I became President of the Board of SMPNS. The 2023-2024 school year also marked SMPNS’s 75th anniversary, and I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support alumni families have for the school. I was fortunate to meet former directors, teachers, and parents whose children are now parents of children who attend with my children, and the legacy of love, equality, and inclusion they all describe is part of the DNA of the program. 

In case you missed the SMPC Play Date SMPNS had the pleasure of hosting at the beginning of May, I’d love to take a moment to share a few of the key principles that guide SMPNS and have made it such a truly special program for the past 75 years. 

  • Children are Free to Be – Children explore their autonomy through play at SMPNS. They are able to move from activity to activity as they choose. This is a foundational tenant of the program because it allows a child to deep-dive when they are curious or engaged in an activity and also navigate entering and exiting activities with peers. Developing independence in the preschool years includes learning to self-soothe, learning to separate, learning to serve themselves food, learning to take care of their bowel and bladder needs, and SMPNS has structured its program around meeting children where they are with the goal of supporting them as they develop these skills.

  • Minimal structure: There are three core activities during a preschool morning: snack, story time, and show and tell. The rest of the morning is devoted to curated activities set up by teachers and facilitated by parents who co-op. The large group activities are when children develop their classroom expectations for kindergarten and participate in question and answer moments that also support cognitive-communication. Not all children thrive in an unstructured program, and that’s why children are also welcome to tour the school to see if they find the environment joyful or overwhelming. 

  • Child-centered themes: Some children come to SMPNS already passionate about topics and activities, whether it be in the realm of non-fiction (rockets, fire trucks, trains, dinosaurs, bugs, languages, gemstones) or fiction (princesses, storytelling, art, playing house), and teachers have many of these topics and play schemas available daily.


  • Holistic learning: Early literacy and spatial awareness activities, (e.g. magnetic tiles, puzzles), are available every day, but you’ll never find a worksheet. Children conduct experiments with objects and practice reading and writing through open-ended activities, in the form of a love note home or with an activity that appeals to their creative expression, without an emphasis on accuracy. There are also ample opportunities for fine-motor and gross-motor development, music & movement, and sensory exploration every day, which allow children to develop self-regulation skills and seek out activities that fill their own unique buckets. 

  • Social-emotional development: SMPNS focuses on conflict resolution and helping children learn to navigate problem solving with the goals of independence and empathy. Children are guided to respect each other and collaborate with peers. Parents often say this is not only one of the best things they learn that supports their children at home, but many parents receive feedback from their child’s elementary school teachers about how self-aware of their feelings and needs their children are, and they are impressed by their independent ability to advocate for themselves and be kind to others. 

  • Learning from others: Children learn from each other during show and tell and during unstructured play. Parents learn from teachers as they watch the teachers support a child whether he is struggling or excited and during several Parent Ed events during the year. Teachers learn from teachers as they attend conferences, are inspired by recent publications and activities, or share their unique gifts – whether it is making up songs, leaning into thirty years of stories to tell, or facilitating silkworms every year. Parents learn from children when they put aside their own desire to direct play and learn how to watch children engage with each other and discover the unique needs of their own little ones in the context of a broader community.

  • Fresh eyes of a child: Children are respected for their curiosity about the world around them. Teachers understand that they are often showing them something they may have never known existed. One of our afternoon teachers is an arachnid hobbyist, and she takes every opportunity she can at storytime and through hands-on activities to pique their curiosity, amazement, and wonder about nature. 

These same curriculum choices are not unique to SMPNS; in fact, most parent-participation co-op nursery schools are play-based and follow these general philosophies. There are several such preschools in our area with varying levels of participation requirements and scheduling options. If you are interested in partnering in your child’s early education and would love to learn more, I highly encourage you to explore this unique model by visiting as many programs as you can to find the one that fits your family’s needs. Several co-op schools attend the SMPC preschool fair in the fall, which is a great opportunity to feel out a school’s vibe and meet the leadership team. 

I appreciate you taking the time to allow me to share the magic of SMPNS. We look forward to many more decades of playing, growing, learning, and loving together in San Mateo. 

Rachel Kammeyer - San Mateo Parents Nursery School President

SMPNS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, volunteer-run organization. We provide flexible scheduling options (a.m. only/all-day programs) and accept children who are 2.5-5 years old in a mixed-age setting. Plan to skip TK? We’d love to support your child’s journey as a 4-5 year old!

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