In this month’s interview, we are highlighting a very special friend to SSP and South Slope business owner, Sonja Neill-Turner, who founded the Brooklyn Sandbox Early Learning Center. Learn about how her personal experience with her son influenced her to open the center, and how children’s unique interests help build and drive the curriculum. Her commitment to childhood education is palpable, and she is an inspiration to all of us who are so very passionate about our children’s early developmental years AND an inspiration to anyone looking to follow their dream and build a small business of their own.
SSP: Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how your life ultimately led you to becoming an entrepreneur in South Slope, founding the Brooklyn Sandbox preschool?
I come from a family of educators. The emphasis was always present growing up. My grandparents were a huge influence on me and they always harked on the equalizing aspects of a good education. It drove my choice in schools I attended and in places that I chose to live. It’s one of the reasons I chose Park Slope. I’ve been a Park Slope resident for over 14 years. The family-centric draw was so appealing. I call it the Mayberry of New York City. And the schools here are strong academically.
Before starting Brooklyn Sandbox, I worked for a large beauty retailer in corporate education. The position was wonderful in that I was able to help shape company culture from leadership to the sales environment. The position commanded a 50% travel schedule which at the time, I loved, but became challenging when the time came for my son, Chase, to head off to kindergarten. It was important to me to be a part of his schooling.
Earlier, in his preschool setting, he flourished but was showing signs of developmental delays in writing and self-regulation. A diagnosis of sensory integration made me reevaluate my ability to be wholly present for him given my travel schedule as he started elementary school. As it turns out, my department was being relocated to San Francisco and since I couldn’t make the move, I negotiated a severance package and began the research to open a preschool. Given my son’s preschool experience, I realized, had it not been for a trained educator, we would not have had the insight to look beyond his behavior. Early intervention was so key to understanding this critical stage in brain development.
So I began to read voraciously, probing the minds of the many therapists that worked with my son so that I could not only learn what I, as his parent, needed to give him, but also how to advocate and support him in his elementary school years. He is the real inspiration behind Brooklyn Sandbox.
SSP: What specifically about early childhood education intrigues you the most and what motivated you to open a school here in South Slope?
The science of learning is what intrigues me most. The brain development in the first five years of life is when it's at its most dynamic. To watch and see how children use investigation and discovery to come to their own conclusion is a marvel I’m so in awe of. I wanted to build a school that not only gave children the developmental frame in which to grow, but also served as a resource for families. I wanted a holistic "soup to nuts “ approach to early education. I feel strongly that family education is tantamount to understanding and supporting the growth of each child. I learned so much from my son’s preschool teachers. I consider myself pretty versed in parenting, but the science of learning was a whole new ballfield.
SSP: What would you say is the core Brooklyn Sandbox philosophy and mission?
I share with all who come into our community that development is at the heart of our teaching philosophy. Of course, the development of the child is central to what we do, but we also support each family holistically. We take the time to understand what’s important to their dynamic, we probe beyond life in the classroom and we ensure a connection that is open so families feel they have the space to build meaningful relationships with their children’s teachers. We often say that a milestone for the child is a milestone for the family. That IS development. We also think of ourselves as a community of lifelong learners. Our teachers form a learning circle and share and push each other into new ways of thinking and reflection in their teaching practice. NO two years are ever the same and they thrive because of it.
SSP: Is there a certain method of teaching that you follow or is it a blend of different techniques?
We are a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool. Our approach follows that of a play-based model where children are central to the course of study. The teacher works to closely observe and document their interests and wonderings and use those interests to build the curriculum. Children will engage more deeply in what they are interested in. And I will tell you, a two- and three-year old interests are more profound than any preconceived unit of study. For instance, we’ve studied sound - the manipulation of sound to create music, how sound can influence emotion, how sound influences art and the impermanence of sound - all because the children were enthralled with the daily ringing of the church bells at noon. The Reggio approach built upon a solid understanding of child development drives all that we do at Brooklyn Sandbox.
SSP: I understand that nature based play is an integral part of a preschoolers experience at Brooklyn Sandbox. With all of us at home these days, this sounds especially intriguing. Can you elaborate as to why this is so important to you and the school?
Nature is so important for so many reasons. There are many studies that document the benefits of nature-play for children. Most recently I read where the majority of diagnoses of developmental delays are happening in urban environments. It’s clear that our disconnect from nature is influencing our children’s development. In nature, there exists every learning concept that classrooms seek to recreate. Think of it - the life cycle, water cycle, seasons, habitats, weather, food production - the learning is endless. The natural environment is sensorily-rich without any effort on the part of the teacher. We also see the social aspect amplified in a natural environment. Think of how calming nature is for us as adults. It’s the same for children. I’ve seen the most rambunctious of children become keen, quiet observers in nature. It’s a great way to alleviate these anxiety inducing days. I think one of the most compelling reasons for outdoor nature play is the social-emotional learning that takes place. Risk-taking takes a front seat. It’s an aspect that is critical in the self-learning of boundaries and building self-esteem. As parents we tend to work hard to remove any potential harm to children in their environment. But how will children learn to discern what is potentially harmful without that important feedback loop of try, learn, adjust, try again?
And given the present climate and the emphasis on health, nature once again provides an immense benefit. Strengthening the core and improving balance comes not from walking on even surfaces like our apartment floors and city streets but comes from running across undulating grass, climbing uneven hills, jumping from misshapen rock to misshapen rock and climbing knobby tree trunks. Those activities engage and strengthen the core. Having a strong stabilizing core is the start to having a well-adjusted, emotionally-regulated child. This is why nature is important for all of us and especially for our little ones as they struggle to make sense of emotions.
SSP: What does the 2020/2021 school year look like for your preschool at this time?
It’s been quite a roller coaster to say the least. We’ve really seen many families struggle economically, emotionally and physically. We’ve made difficult decisions which at the core, was about having a school to return to once the -stay-at-home orders were lifted. We’re proud to report that we are fully enrolled. We have our families to thank for that. We’ve seen that our hard work throughout the year really bore fruit - our community held fast and supported one another. It was really the most challenging time I've ever had to face as a businessperson - in large and small business. This year we will focus on the social-emotional well being of our children and families as well as augment our all weather nature-based play. Nature is healing so we look forward to spending days in the sun and the rain.
SSP: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for those of us looking to start up our own small business?
I think any successful small business owner will tell you that you have to have perspective, perseverance and patience. I think the obvious will always hold true of course - you have to be organized, have a strong understanding of your market or industry, and understand people. Running a small business is about problem-solving but also the understanding that you are serving several masters when coming up with the solution. You have to be client-centered in your decision - making those decisions should also serve the business and it’s longevity. I would strongly advise taking an entrepreneurial course. Many area colleges offer them at low cost.
You have to ask yourself the tough questions - what are you willing to sacrifice? Time with family? Income potential? I stay focused on what I’ve gained instead- the flexibility to be there for my son, to build a community of families and to extend the same parent experience I had when navigating those early years. I wouldn’t change a thing. Every obstacle was a chance to learn and grow. And even now, after this unbelievably trying and stormy year, I still see the rainbows.
To learn more about Brooklyn Sandbox, go to http://brooklynsandbox.com/.