Cooking Up Young Learners

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Most children don’t walk into their kindergarten classroom on Monday morning to the smell of freshly baked muffins.

But parent Princess Prince-McCoade describes dropping her daughter off at the Central Park East I pre-K/kindergarten classroom and finding steaming Ziploc bags wafting out the scent of freshly baked pumpkin or banana muffins. The baked goods are a snack for the ice-skating trip that Yvonne Smith’s class takes weekly in the winter. The 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds also get to enjoy the animals of The Bronx Zoo, playing with hermit crabs in the sand at Orchard Beach and, of course, frequent trips to Central Park, “our backyard,” as Smith says.

When not on city adventures—many youngsters are proficient at reading subway maps—Smith has 25 pairs of hands to help her with food preparations.

“They cook their snack every day,” she said.

Smith writes picture and word recipes for the children, teaching them about measurement and math as they cook and fostering a sense of community. In addition to the muffins, the young chefs have prepared everything from rice balls to matzoth brei and latkes, with parents sometimes coming in to share recipes from their homes and cultures.

Smith, 60, credits her family for sparking her interest in teaching.

“Nothing was valued higher than education for us,” she said.

She began kindergarten in New York in 1954, the same year that Brown v. Board of Education was decided. The daughter of two African Americans born in Virginia, Smith remembers hearing her family discuss the decision.

By the time she got to City College, where famed early-childhood education expert Lillian Weber had her workshop center for open education, Smith knew she wanted to work with young children. She started teaching at a public daycare center in the Bronx and has been at Central Park East I since 1985.

Smith’s class, like all the classes at the school, is a mixed age group, meant to reflect the diversity of ages in families and society and to encourage a varied flow of knowledge between students.

Prince-McCoade, whose youngest sister was also in Smith’s class 15 years ago, struggles to find the words to describe the teacher’s charm.

“It’s kind of like asking how a magician does his trick,” she said, adding that Smith regularly distributes her home phone number to parents.

Smith guides her students as they care for a guinea pig and watch chicks hatch. Classroom activities range from building structures in a block area and making silhouettes to dramatic play. Students also choose from the approximately 1,000 books that Smith estimates fill the classroom library.

Despite all the excitement, Prince-McCoade marvels, “Yvonne’s voice is never over a whisper.” Smith strives to assure that children are recognized as individuals, but also know that they are part of a group. To Smith, reading, writing and math skills support children as they discover their passions. Prince-McCoade can see the results.

“She has taken my daughter to this other level of maturity and confidence,” the parent said.

Eager to share her expertise, Smith has spent summers working with teachers interested in learning her methods, and recently spoke at a Congressional hearing focused on the significance of play in children’s lives.

“People always ask me, ‘Aren’t you ready to come out of the classroom?’” Smith said, “And I’m like, ‘No, why would I want to leave this?’”

Yvonne Smith
Kindergarden, Central Park East
I

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