Preschool pairs with Stanford to create sensory wonderland

It all started, simply enough, with clay.

At Chai Preschool in Foster City, students now work with clay on a regular basis, making shapes and then changing those shapes with string, rocks and blunt plastic knives. As they play with the clay, the children develop observational skills, critical thinking skills and early language and math skills.

The youngsters also work with blocks, paint, sand and water — all because of Chai’s partnership with the nationally acclaimed Bing Nursery School at Stanford University.

Zachary Nachlis plays outside at Chai Preschool in Foster City. photo/anat kedem

“Usually in preschool, you do a theme, such as snow or winter activities, and it can get silly or kitschy,” says Esty Marcus, director and founder of Chai Preschool, which is located at 499 Boothbay Ave. “Inspired by Bing and the higher level of thinking embraced there, we changed our curriculum.”

Noting that many preschools are play-based, Marcus notes that “we have taken it to the next level. Our explorations now are more organic, and come from the children’s interests. We have seen our students become more adept, more sophisticated in their learning, able to grow and make discoveries on their own.”

Founded in 2005, Chai is at full capacity, with 50 students ages 2 to 5. “With our current curriculum, every child is engaged and acts with intentionality,” Marcus says. “That reflects the Jewish concept of understanding why we do things and thinking about it — not just doing it.”

When she founded Chai, Marcus visited many preschools, nationally and locally, looking for a model. In 2007, she approached Beverley Hartman, a head teacher and 26-year veteran at Bing, for mentorship and consultation.

Bing currently serves 430 children, ages 2 to 5, and its classrooms and play yards are adjacent to Stanford research labs. The school may be best known for creating the “marshmallow test,” in which researchers left children alone in a room with one marshmallow and gave them the choice of eating it now, or waiting a few minutes until the researcher returned and getting two marshmallows.

“Esty was forward-thinking and showed leadership in looking for a mentor,” says Hartman, who also  is a lecturer in Stanford’s psychology department. “When I first visited Chai, I was impressed with the staff’s excellent relationships with the children. It’s hard to guide people if they don’t understand innately the importance of respecting children.”

Every week for three years, Hartman met with teachers at Chai, observed classrooms and offered staff development workshops as she shared skills and knowledge developed at Bing over the past four and a half decades.

“I showed them how to use clay, blocks, paint, sand and water in ways that help children learn and grow,” says Hartman. “Right away, these items come to represent ideas, and children can use them for creative expression.”

Hartman elaborates: “Even the youngest children can use water right

    away. First, it’s a sensory experience, whether it’s cold or warm. There may be bubbles in it, or color. Using water tables, tubs and containers, children learn how to manage water, how to move it, change its flow at different speeds or elevations.”

After incorporating these basics recommended by Hartman, the changes at Chai were significant. “Bev changed our landscape,” says Marcus. “Exposing children to deeper experiences does not happen by accident.”

After seeing how successfully Bing’s methodologies had been replicated at Chai, Hartman opened a mentorship program at Bing to preschools around the world. With others at the school, she also presented a workshop in 2009 at the National Association for the Education of Young Children conference.

At a fundraising event Feb. 13, Chai will present Hartman with an education award established by the preschool. The event will also feature guest speaker Alan Veingrad, a former Super Bowl winner, who will discuss football and his Jewish journey. (For more information, visit

Hartman is pleased to receive the award. “I have gained as much from Chai as I have given,” she says. “Also, I didn’t invent the ideas I shared — I had great mentoring from others.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.