JCamp’s Gan Kef for Preschoolers: Intentional Fun Baked With Values
18-month old Gan Kef campers explore the wonders of nature by planting bean seeds during Session B of summer camp on the Dell Jewish Community Campus. Credit: Danielle Ketchens
By Kathy Davis
Whether three months, 18 months, or four years old, Shalom Austin’s JCamps Gan Kef summer camp for infants through five-year-olds is the place to be for summer! Amidst giggles and shouts of joy, you will find campers engaging in water play and outdoor activities, interacting with session surprise guests, creating personalized art, exploring science all while looking through Jewish lenses like B’tselem Elohim to see that all things are valued and created in G-d’s image! Rising and graduated pre-k students enjoy swim lessons and free swim four days a week at the Shalom Austin small pool, while all of the other campers splash two days a week. Everyone participates in “mindful” yoga and related activities presented by a trained educator. These are only a few of the exceptional activities offered for campers.
All two-week summer sessions are based on themes that provide individual classes the opportunity to take learning experiences in the direction of children’s interests. From Session A's Music Without Borders theme based on the William Shakespeare quote, “If music be the food of love, play on!” to Session C’s STEMgineering Start-Up theme which matches Austin’s techie culture and was based on a quote from Bill Nye the Science Guy, all Camp Gan Kef activities are based on the belief that children learn through hands-on discovery. For example, 18-month-old toddlers became excited about seeds and plants that they saw while on a nature walk during Session B—Nature’s Expressions— on the 40-acre wooded campus in June. They read books about plants, opened all kinds of fruits to examine the seeds inside, incorporated leaves and sticks in their art, planted their own window garden, and more. This interest carried through the following sessions, so their educators personalized water play, classroom and outdoor activities will match their literal green thumb obsession!
Infants in Camp Gan Kef play gleefully on large blocks of sculpting clay or simply exploring intentionally with their feet while older children use the same type of clay to create imaginative objects and then re-create something different on another day. Some toddlers explored giant tires—not on the playground—but in their classroom where experienced educators provided them to enhance physical skill development as well as social/emotional learning. Children are challenged developmentally; yet, these little campers understand that their educators are there to support and guide them while trusting in their abilities. Values underlie all interactions. For example, children concretely learn Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) as they compost after all snacks and after lunch on a daily basis.
Camp Educators are professionals—most teach during the academic school year—and they ensure children have provocations for exploration in many different areas to ensure they keep learning and growing through play! They are facilitators—active participants in the children’s intentional learning and sensory experiences—and swim with the children, cook with them, play on the playground, and continuously are engaged in conversations of all kinds.
August still has plenty of excitement for JCamp’s youngest Gan Kef explorers as they finish a session on the important CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) philosophy in Session D’s “CATCH a Wave” and Session E’s “Yofi (beauty) In the Arts” themes. Campers have experienced a variety of performances and presentations from professionals like Austin Symphony’s clarinet player, Hilary Scop, Ranger Kristen from McKinney State Park, Chef Matthew Grimes, and Neuroscientist Jennifer Gray.
Campers were engaged making spaghetti from scratch to comparing the size of animal brains and testing the effects of temperature on the atoms in air through experimentation. Many were excited to “see” that an adult human brain is about the size of a spaghetti squash! A visit from the popular Coach Angelo Flores and an interactive puppet show will complete the surprise guests scheduled for August Gan Kef sessions. ■
For more information, please visit the Shalom Austin website at shalomaustin.org/camps, contact the Early Childhood Program Front Office at (512) 735-8100, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. During the academic school year, the JCC Early Childhood Program serves nearly 300 children from six-week-old infants to four and five- year-olds entering Pre-Kindergarten.