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The Pros of Play: Meet Kristi Nguyen, the Mom Who Made Her Dream of a Play-Based Kindergarten Come True

2018-06-14 by Kristi Nguyen
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Welcome to the latest installment of our series, The Pros of Play, where we showcase people who are truly living the Melissa & Doug mission to Take Back Childhood. These champions of play understand the power of imagination and wonder to transform lives — for kids AND grown-ups!

Name: Kristi Nguyen, registered and licensed occupational therapist; owner and executive director of OT-Kids, LLC, with locations in Stamford and Fairfield, Connecticut; visionary behind a play-based kindergarten program in Stamford.

Tell us about what you do.

I quite literally have the best job in the world. My job is to work with children with special needs, primarily autism, learning disabilities, developmental delay and sensory processing disorder, but I also work with many children who do not have a specific disability or diagnosis. I teach them to use their bodies appropriately, to process sensory information effectively and generate appropriate gross and fine motor skills and safety awareness through various types of play. I love my job, being an occupational therapist is not just what I do. It’s who I am.

Kristi pro of play

My passion project really is the play-based kindergarten that I helped create at First United Methodist Nursery School (FUMNS) two years ago. My children were nursery school students at FUMNS and I have been actively involved in the Parents Association there for four years so it has become kind of like a second home. I do free screenings for occupational and speech therapy to help students receive early intervention if necessary. And I’m certified in the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum so I’ve supported the school in implementing that program.


How did you get interested in play-based educational programs?

When my son was about to exit nursery school, I toured many different kindergartens — public and private. I wanted to put him into an environment I truly believed would support his best self and encourage him to love learning. I saw things I liked in some of the private schools, but didn’t feel this was financially feasible for us. When I toured our local public school, I didn’t feel it provided the sensory experiences and movement that 5-year-olds need, and I strongly feel that many of the demands placed on kindergartners are not appropriate developmentally. I struggled with the dilemma of putting my child into a classroom that I didn’t agree with, but what I wanted for him didn’t exist. I felt it was my obligation to create it for my child and others.

I approached the director of my child’s nursery school and shared my vision. She didn’t feel it was going to be possible because in the past the church that housed the school had not said yes to requests for additional classroom space. But she encouraged me to pursue it, and I made my presentation to the board. They loved it! We got the space!

We began sharing the vision with the families of the current nursery school students and the interest was immediate. To our surprise, we began receiving phone calls from people that were not part of the FUMNS community but were interested in hearing more about the play-based kindergarten. It was then I knew my vision was going to take flight and my son would have a developmentally appropriate play-based kindergarten to attend in the fall. The director of the preschool helped drive this initiative full throttle! My dream for the kindergarten program became a reality!


How is a play-based kindergarten different from other kindergartens?

In a play-based kindergarten, the children drive much of their own learning based on their interests and explorations at the moment. There are no traditional workbooks, no common worksheets that drill concepts through repetition, no computers or tablets (although we do have a Smart Board that is used interactively by the teachers and students). The foundation of the classroom is collaboration and play, and these children are learning everything their public school counterparts are learning but in a more joyful way!

Academics such as math and language arts are presented through small group instruction with many manipulatives and hands-on learning experiences. The classroom offers a variety of stations for different interests and learning styles. The OT in me loves that the children are moving around the classroom all day long, from center to center.

learning through play

Every other week the children have a 90 minute science lesson. The children are doing experiments and having experiences that you would expect to see in a middle school science class! Throughout the day, the children journal about what they have learned.  Journal writing helps them to reflect as well as to help develop the ability to retell and explain the learning process.

On top of everything that is happening inside the classroom, the children have three outdoor recess periods each day. Each recess is 30 minutes long which gives the kids plenty of unstructured time which helps enhance their learning potential in the classroom. Today, the typical kindergartener in a public and even many private schools are getting only one 25-minute recess each day. The teachers bring the classroom outdoors on a regular basis so that much of the learning is done out in nature, which is awesome!

learning through play

Can you give us an example of how this play-based program has helped children grow?

I love seeing the learning that comes out of imaginative play! My son and his peers have learned to read and write, to add and subtract, to measure, to decode phonics and more. The academic learning happens naturally side by side with all these great social-emotional connections!

One center in the classroom is an Imagination Station, where kids created a “toy store.” The children painted, glued, and built their own toys out of loose parts and wood. They created a cash register and a gift wrap area and turned the Imagination Station into a fully functioning toy store where parents and teachers could come and purchase a handmade toy! The children loved it and all the while they were learning so many amazing skills such as money concepts, counting, adding and subtracting, writing, reading, decoding, not to mention problem solving, collaboration and teamwork!

learning through play

What’s next?

The interest in the play-based kindergarten keeps growing, and our class size has grown each year! My dream is to expand this program to offer a full K-5 elementary experience that values play, collaboration, and social and emotional growth while encouraging the child’s natural desire to learn.


Now, some just-for-fun questions! Tell us about your family and how you like to play.

My family is made up of me, my husband Mike, and my children, Michael, 6, and Kyla, 4. We are definitely an outdoors family! In the winter, we love to go skiing just about every weekend and in the summer you will often find us at the beach! We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood filled with young families and lots of children. On a typical weekday after school you will find the kids riding their bikes with friends from the street or running from house to house playing tag. I love just sitting outside and watching them play!

Let’s do “Skip, Play, or Obsess Over” with these ways to play: Crafts, Pretend, and Puzzles

SKIP Puzzles: OTs across the country will give me a hard time for this one because we use puzzles all the time as part of our job but I think I would skip puzzles because while they can be done collaboratively they are often a one person job and I love when play is collaborative and imaginative.

PLAY Crafts:  Sky is the limit when it comes to crafting! Clay, paint, glue, crayons, yarn, beads — crafting lets children use their creativity and imagination. It is easy to encourage socialization and there are no boundaries.

OBSESS OVER Pretend Play: I totally obsess over pretend play!  By far the most important part of play is imaginative and pretend play. Letting the child be whoever they want to be, take on different roles, work together to create story lines . . . You can be a police officer one minute and a circus clown the next!  You can be a mermaid one day and a veterinarian the next! Pretend play is the first way that children develop an interest in a possible future career. It teaches empathy, problem solving, collaboration, perspective taking and so much more. The benefits are countless!

Thanks for sharing your story, Kristi! We are so inspired by your passion for play and for making your dream of a play-based kindergarten come true for your kids!


Kristi Nguyen

Kristi is a licensed occupational therapist specializing in the area of pediatrics.  A graduate of Quinnipiac University in 2002, she has practiced her specialty in various pediatric settings including schools, clinical and home-based and she has experience working with children of all ages and abilities.

Specializing in sensory motor, fine motor and handwriting skills, Kristi is best known for her creativity and energetic and play-based approach to working with children.

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