Toddler Central

It’s music and singing time at The Poppyseed Pre-Nursery, where a group of toddlers and accompanying adults surround a pile of stuffed animals, miniature drums, and colorful maracas.

Following the first strum of teacher Amy’s guitar, the children dance one by one in the center of the circle. One babysitter is lucky enough to enjoy a round of song with a stuffed duck on her head, much to the children’s amusement. With snack and storytime and arts and crafts still on the agenda, the kids have a lot to look forward to, and their laughter fills the bright, blue-carpeted room.

When she opened The Poppyseed Pre-Nursery on the Upper West Side in 1986, director and founder Gail Ionescu succeeded in creating one of the first pre- pre-school programs in the city—before they were a trend. Having worked as a children’s therapist at Mount Sinai Hospital, a faculty member at the 92nd Street Y Parenting Center, and an assistant director at a children’s theater, Ionescu sensed the need for a haven for toddlers who were not old enough to start nursery school but could benefit from socializing in an organized environment.

“My idea was that children under three need to be around other people,” says Ionescu, a native New Yorker and mother of a 17-year-old daughter. “When it’s time to go to nursery school, they can use
their energy to focus on actual learning rather than reassuring
themselves that they’re okay in [a social] setting.”

Armed with a very
modest inheritance left by a beloved grandmother, the emotional support
of her husband, Christian, and the encouragement of parents she’d worked
with in the past, she decided to take the risk. “I didn’t have very
much money and thought: Should I take a gamble and invest in toys and
get started on this?” recalls Ionescu. 

Today, the families who
make up the Poppyseed community are glad she did. One of the hallmarks
of Ionescu’s program is its emphasis on the essential bond between a
child and their parent or caregiver. To that end, adults play as
important a role as children in every class, providing a sense of
security and a loving environment. “Children learn better and are more
focused on the activities and curriculum when they are feeling secure
and relaxed,” says Ionescu.

With an average class size of 12 children, led by both a teacher and assistant,
attention is given to each individual child. “The fact that they’re with
the same children several times a week for a period of a year gives
them an experience that can resemble a real community— like an extended
family,” says Ionescu, adding that adults—not just the children—often
end up making friends there too.

The space itself manages to feel both
expansive and intimate. The 1,000 square feet are divided into a
well-stocked toy area replete with puppets, puzzles, toy trucks, dolls,
and more; a music area with a piano and instruments; a mini-gym; a book
corner, and an arts and crafts section. 

After guiding the Upper
West Side institution for more than 20 years, Ionescu hopes Poppyseed
will continue to attract families looking for a warm pre-nursery
experience for their child. “The enjoyment of being together is [our]
basic driving force,” says Ionescu.