The Gift of “What If?”
When I began my JCC journey back in the 90’s as the front desk girl at Mayer Kaplan JCC, I was in college and had no idea what to be when I grew up. I changed my mind so many times….what if I became a lawyer, social worker, pediatrician, comedian, (I think it’s not too late for that one,) wedding planner and more. Working at the front desk gave me the opportunity to interact with everyone and I loved the hustle and bustle of it all. I especially loved hearing the laughter of the children and the interactions between them, their educators and parents. And yet I still didn’t add educator to my vast list of career options.
And then one day the JCC Chicago Director of Early Childhood told me that I should consider a career in Early Childhood. While I was hesitant if this was something I was cut out for, once again I gave myself permission to think “what if” and in that moment everything changed. Quickly I came to realize that this was my dream job and never looked back. I LOVED that I got to “play” all day; it was the best. I also quickly realized that there was a lot of work that went into creating the ideal environment for play-based education but I tempered that with my own personal philosophy: if you are nice and kind, learning will come naturally.
Little did I know when studying play-based learning in graduate school, that the philosophy of Loris Malaguzzi, the pedagogist who developed the Reggio Emilia approach, would be so true to what I intuitively had come to believe and integral to what I do today. And several years ago, our JCC Chicago Early Childhood officially incorporated this Reggio Emilia philosophy and the theory of “Loose Parts” into our curriculum. It encourages children to enter a world of “what if?” It’s a mindset that enhances their ability to think imaginatively, bringing a sense of adventure and possibility to their world.
But in order to make “what if?” possible, you need to essentially create the safest cocoon of an environment that makes children feel secure in those choices. Our Florence G. Heller JCC Early Childhood families would say our community is filled with respect and shared experiences that help us to gain trust and love for one another. Our educators learn the unique needs of every child and support their whole family by making connections with them right from the start. And our children are flourishing with the belief that they can explore alternate possibilities and solutions to challenges.
Florence G. Heller JCC is one of those places that you walk into and feel the love exuding from the walls of our iconic Chicago building. The feeling is in the air – the joy of children’s laughter, the electric sound of curiosity and development, and parents and educators kvelling over children’s latest achievements. And, as I proudly enter my 18th year at JCC Chicago, I can’t help but look back at my younger self and be thankful I gave myself the gift of “what if?”
Rachel Weber is the Director of Early Childhood at Florence G. Heller JCC. She holds a Masters Degree in Early Childhood and Special Education and was a Supervisor and Adjunct Professor in Education at Northeastern Illinois University