WEST NEWBURY — Physicist Albert Einstein called it “the highest form of research.” Playwright George Bernard Shaw said we’ll grow old without it. And educator Maria Montessori dubbed it “the work of the child.”

Even Fred Rogers, the cardigan-clad icon of PBS TV for children felt strongly about the intrinsic value of play. “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning,” Mr. Rogers told generations of parents.

Although numerous studies have underscored the negative impact a lack of daily play and exploration may have on a young child’s development, the emphasis on teacher-directed, academic-style classrooms at increasingly younger grade levels is often the norm in schools these days.

Enter Tracy Hartford and The West Newbury Learning Center, a play-based child-care option for families that she and her husband,Terry, opened in town square in January.

Located at 277 Main St, it’s a convenient spot for parents in need of quality short-term — even last-minute — child care for toddlers and preschoolers; while also offering an array of after school programming for students through 12th grade.

The center is a nurturing space for young children to explore their creativity, begin to assert themselves as individuals, and make new friends.

As a mother of two teenage children, Hartford, who has a master’s degree in child development and 20 years of elementary school teaching experience, said she understands children have a biological imperative to learn about themselves and the world around them through play and exploration. She is passionate about individualized, play-based learning — something she said is missing from a lot of classrooms these days.

“Education is very cookie cutter right now,” she said.

With its wooden toys and furniture, natural lighting and soft-toned walls, WNLC exudes a calm, peaceful — yet enticing — atmosphere where youngsters are encouraged to investigate what interests them most. In one corner stands an easel; in another, a dollhouse; while a dramatic play area calls invitingly from still a third section of the room. There’s books, puzzles and age-appropriate crafts.

Toward the back, a child stands, intently scooping and squishing kinetic sand at the sensory table.

WNLC offers weekday tot sessions for ages 2 to 5 years old from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. 

The children — a maximum of six per session — are provided with a variety of hands-on activities to play by themselves or with others. They have snack time and conclude their session with meeting time on the rug where they hear stories and sing songs — all based on a monthly theme. The idea, says Hartford, is to let the children play and “just be themselves.”

The cost is $50 per session with an optional lunch session from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for $15 more. A session on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 3:30 p.m. is $45. Parents may sign up for as many as six sessions a month in advance. Or, if last minute care is needed — and there’s room — they can reserve a spot the same day.

WNLC also runs programming for older kids, such as the popular Girl Power Yoga sessions for ages 5 through 12.

Hartford uses yoga to combat the negative messaging about self-image with which young girls are exposed to these days. As a result of the program’s success, she is planning to run a similar workshop for ages 12 to 14. There are also movement classes that younger children may either sign up for in advance or on the same day. After-school tutoring in early literacy is available from Hartford as well.

Terry Hartford has always liked math, so he enjoys building confidence in the subject for the young people he tutors at the center. He also offers sessions in developing executive function skills — or what he calls the skills needed “to get things done” —time management, dealing with distractions, getting organized, prioritizing and creating routines. Too often a student is labeled “lazy” or “unmotivated” when what they actually have is an executive function weakness.

“The good news is that EF skills can be taught — it’s not an affliction,” he said, noting that he not only guides his students but also follows up to make sure things get done. “And when a coach tells them to do something — they do it.”

Seeing anxiety evaporate from the faces of his students once they get the hang of it is its own kind of reward, he said.

With a degree in civil engineering from Tufts University, he spent 25 years buying and selling power plants around the world before deciding to apply his corporate finance skills to his real passion — teaching and coaching.

Before opening the center, he taught algebra to eighth-graders and now coaches Georgetown High School’s alpine race and varsity lacrosse teams.

After raising their own family here for 17 years, the Hartfords said they feel honored to be helping today’s young families. 

For more information on WNLC, visit https://westnewburylearningcenter.com

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