AMHERST – Twenty-five years and hundreds of students. Wanda Bickle’s preschool has seen a generation pass through its doors. She’s had a former student return to enroll her own child.
“My very first year I had one student,” said Bickle, who followed a bachelor of arts from Mount Allison with training in early childhood education in Truro.
The numbers grew. She had three the second year. These days, there are three classes of six kids each.
It was more when she owned Pumpkin Patch Playschool on East Pleasant Street. But tax rules made running an unlicensed ‘babysitting’ business more appealing so, starting in 1999, the school moved to appropriately-named Academy Street.
“I like the kids,” said Bickle. “They’re sweet and they’re so smart.”
Twenty-five years. Enough time to see the way kids have changed. And they have changed, according to Bickle. They’re more technically savvy, but also have fewer social skills, perhaps the result of more time spent alone.
“(But) you can’t paint all kids with the same brush,” she said.
“They’re like little sponges – they absorb so much.”
Bickle has a number of goals for her young students, which range in age from three to five.
“I want them to be more independent,” she said; comfortable being separated from caregivers for short blocks of time. “I want them to be able to share and play together and be nice to each other.”
And she wants to introduce them to a variety of concepts, from the alphabet to math – not to master them, but to make the ideas familiar for when the children begin public education.
She said preschool is an inclusive environment, often a child’s first exposure to the variety of differently-abled people. It’s also a place where young students work on the difference between reality and fantasy, said Bickle.
If separation from mommy or daddy is the hardest thing for new students, being required to do what they’re told is the second.
“They have to recognize authority,” said Bickle. “It’s not a hardship, it’s not criminal, it’s ‘Pick up your toys’.”
She thinks some kids are overindulged.
“I think kids need to learn how to fail,” she said: a controlled environment is a safe place for them to discover success and failure, and to learn how to emerge from the latter.
She sees former students around town.
“It’s very nice,” she said.
Twenty-five years. It will be 26 years, at least. She’s already planning for fall. But the days of Mrs. Bickle’s Preschool are numbered. She’s almost finished her licensed practical nurse qualification. It’s been a four-year, part-time process.
“I just need to do something to prepare for my retirement,” she said.
She has a binder with a photo of every class – almost every child – she’s taught. A life’s work between covers. What will she miss most?
“The kids, absolutely.”