Amy Nelson has always loved interacting with kids. “It’s in my DNA,” she said in her office on a recent Friday, just six days after she began as director of JCC MetroWest’s preschool.
“I remember even when I was a kid I would watch another child, and I remember having an in-depth conversation with my mom about what that kid was doing and why and how we could help the kid do something differently.”
In a classroom at the school — housed in the Sharon and Stephen Seiden Early Childhood Center at the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange — she sat right down on the floor with a group of preschoolers, joining in as they traced their shoes for a project. She offered her own feet and a couple of boys had to switch to larger paper. “Apparently I have very big feet,” she laughed as they drew.
Nelson’s philosophy is letting children do their own learning. “I believe firmly that children learn from their environment, and by environment, I mean the materials in their environment. They could be outside or inside, but it includes the grown-up and the peers in their environment,” she said.
“You can’t give children information. But you can set the stage to give children the materials they need. The beautiful thing is that they will. They are wired to figure things out.”
Nelson uses the term “developmental interaction,” the name used when she was still an undergraduate at Brandeis University working in the Lemberg Children’s Center, an early childhood program on the campus in Waltham, Mass. But it’s not so different from Reggio Emilia, or parts of the JCCs Association curriculum known as Sheva.
That philosophy is one of the many things that helped Nelson stand out from the other candidates, according to Alan Feldman, director of JCC MetroWest, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “Amy has a clear understanding and approach to working with children and educating children, and she’s a great fit for our Jewish early childhood program,” he said.
The early childhood program she is now heading, said Nelson, offers a “learning through playing” setting for toddlers (age one by July 1) through kindergartners. It is “designed to create a solid foundation for children by addressing their social, cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs,” she said. About 240 children, ages one-six, are currently enrolled in programs that range from a full-time, year-round option, to part-time preschool options meeting a few days in the mornings or afternoons, depending on the child’s age. There is also a summer camp program that includes swimming and outdoor activities along with themed days, like animal day, pajama day, and barbecue day, and field days for the oldest children.
Nelson has had more than a decade of experience in Jewish preschools, including 10 years as director of the nursery school at Temple Beth El in Closter and the last two at the Bergen County Y/JCC. Even more than that, said Feldman, she has deep ties to the Jewish community. She is a past president of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, NY, and she has two grown children who have made aliya and are serving as “lone soldiers” in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Several people in our community have relatives whose children have been in Amy’s programs and from the parental side have given her high praise,” Feldman said. “She’s solid and very thoughtful. She’s not someone who shoots from the hip. There’s always a reason for everything she does.”
Before even starting her job, Nelson moved from Closter to Montclair. “If I’m going to do this job the way it needs to be done, I knew I’d need to live close. I don’t do anything partway,” she said.
Nelson, whose official start date was May 1, succeeds interim director Grace Kaplan, a longtime educator and administrator at the preschool who served for about a year following the departure of previous director Michael Reisman.
Among Nelson’s first orders of business, she said, is to “form relationships — with staff, with parents, with children, with the administration, and with the more global Greater MetroWest Jewish community. Once we have positive relationships in place, the road forward will be clear.”
Because the school has had a variety of leaders in a short period of time, she said, the other important item on her agenda is to provide “a cohesive view of how we want to address early childhood here. We all need to share the same vision.”
Hers includes plenty of parenting advice, both one-on-one and in workshops. “I spend a lot of time counseling parents on parenting. It’s incredibly important for parents to have support. My door is always open.”
Nelson holds a master’s degree in early childhood education from the Bank Street College of Education and a law degree from Boston University.
“When I got out of college, I wasn’t sure how to make my love for children into a career and pay back my loans,” she said. She planned to work in children’s advocacy, but before she could practice, she married and had two children of her own. “I was so child-centered. There was no way I was going to be out of the home when I had my own children,” she said.
By the time she was ready to go back to work, she realized she wasn’t interested in the confrontation involved in lawyering. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” she quipped. “The goal was to advocate for children, and I do that every day.”