Strong Start a haven for preschoolers (and their mums)

A few times a week, I pack the kids across town from our home in the West End to Strong Start over at McBride Elementary in Sapperton. Wesley love, love, LOVES to go to "school" and I love, love, LOVE that it's both free and fun for all of us.

A few times a week, I pack the kids across town from our home in the West End to Strong Start over at McBride Elementary in Sapperton. Wesley love, love, LOVES to go to “school” and I love, love, LOVE that it’s both free and fun for all of us.

Wesley at play in the StrongStart sandbox. Photo: Briana Tomkinson.
Wesley at play in the StrongStart sandbox. Photo: Briana Tomkinson.

Strong Start is a free, provincially funded, parent-participation preschool prep program for babies and children under five. It’s a great way for parents and caregivers to get the kids out of the house and socializing with other children while also getting preschoolers a small taste of school routine.

There are currently two Strong Start centres in New Westminster: McBride in Sapperton(9am-12pm Monday-Friday)  and Queen Elizabeth Elementary in Queensborough (9am-12pm Monday & Friday; Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday 4-7pm). A third centre is planned to open in the West End at the end of March, at Connaught Heights Elementary (drop-in times haven’t yet been announced).

A typical Strong Start day begins and ends with free play in a room full of toys, art supplies, books and costumes. Sandwiched in the middle is a simple “school” routine: clean-up, snack, gym, and circle time.

I can’t say enough about how awesome it is. I can’t even pick a favourite activity. My son adores the free play, but I think the snack/gym/circle routine is really cool and good for him to experience.

The snacks are healthy and yummy, typically including fresh fruit pieces, cheerios and fishy crackers with water to drink. Gym is a lifesaver during the cold and rainy winter months. Parents and kids trek over to the school gymnasium and the little ones run wild with bouncy balls, hockey sticks, wiffle balls and hula hoops. And during circle time, Wesley not only gets to hear a story and play some silly circle games, but I also get to learn a few new tunes & tricks to deploy when he gets too squirrelly at home.

I also appreciate that the Strong Start teachers have no fear of messy activities. My son can choose to be up to his elbows in flour, mash shaving cream all over a table, shake glitter all over a picture, mush around a goopy cornstarch-powered paste or cut construction paper into teeny-tiny pieces – all things I’d been a little afraid to try at home!

Plus, while all this is going on, parents, grandparents and babysitters can enjoy coffee or tea and commiserate about the crazy things small children do. Of all the kid activities I’ve tried, Strong Start has been the best environment for meeting other local parents. The only downside is that the program is so good that it’s very popular (and therefore can get so busy that it can be overwhelming).

I’ve got to give the B.C. Government, our local school district and the others behind this program full props. It’s amazing, and I’m so happy to see it expanding here in New West. In my opinion, it would be a worthy addition to every neighbourhood school. Then, kids could actually attend the Strong Start at the school they will enter in kindergarten, which could go a long way to relieving kids’ (and parents’) anxiety on the first full day of school.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

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  1. Wow- That program sounds so amazing! With so many very expensive programs out there it is great to have such a well run program that is free! I will have to look and see if I can find something similar in Calgary. We have great free programs at the Library- but they are just focused on songs and rhymes and lack this 'preschool prep' component.

  2. I am glad you convinced me to come try it out! Kale really loves “gym time” and I love that he loves it because we come home from Strong Start and he is one tuckered out little boy. We really enjoy Family Place as well, but this added ability to have gym time means that Strong Start is working so well for us right now.

  3. Thanks Briana for doing such a wonderful story. It is a wonderful program, and we have hired some pretty special staff to facilitate it.

    For those of you who live in the west end and are interested in the Connaught Heights site, it will be open weekday afternoons from 12:30 to 3:30 starting March 29th.

    This program will be an exciting partnership between NW Parks Culture and Recreation and the School District. The current Tiny Tot Playtime room will be expanded upon to accomodate the centre in the afternoon. It will be the first designated early learning space in the District.

    Betina Ali
    Community Program Developmnt Officer
    Student Services, SD No. 40

  4. Thanks Betina, … and for those of you who have yet to visit the Connaught Heights school site, you are in for a most delightful bonus, the playground adjacent to the school is absolutely picturesque! The children love it! … and there are tennis courts too! The program, the site, the staff! Do take the time to visit; this is good for New Westminster families!

  5. Hi

    I heard about this program. I really like it. Can anyone please tell me is there any program like this in calgary too? If yes, then where it is? Thanks in advance.

  6. It's a shame that so much money is being put into StrongStart programs which are mainly attended by parents and grandparents who are home with their children. What about the children who can't attend because both parents have to work plus pay childcare fees with no subsidy from the government unless your family income is under $30 000. The money could be better spent on those who really need it. Children whose parents are staying home with them already have an advantage, so who is this program really for? Definitely not for kids who really need it most.

    1. Hi Janna,

      I also wish there was more support for working parents. I didn't find, however, that StrongStart was primarily for stay-at-home parents. Unlike Family Place, which does require that the kids are brought by a relative, StrongStart is also open to nannies and home daycare providers. There were a few that I encountered there. Whereas kids who are in a group daycare setting get opportunities to socialize with other kids daily, kids who are cared for by an at-home parent may not get as much opportunity to mix with large groups of other children. While there are some advantages for kids to have an at-home parent, there are also some disadvantages (such as access to socialize with kids). With the cost of childcare being what it is, I suspect that a number of the parents who stay home are not those whose spouses earn enough that they can afford to. It's those who don't make enough to justify the cost of childcare! Those who are squeezed most are middle-income families who earn too much to qualify for subsidies, but not enough to make ends meet.

  7. I start “day-nannying” a 21-mo in September and I can’t wait for his parents to register him to Strong Start!!! It sounds amazing to me, because I’ve been looking into playgroups we can go to for him to be social, and most groups I’ve found in our area are only for parents… Just because his dad works and mom’s in school doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to run around with other kids! We’ll be dropping his big brother off 15 minutes before it starts at the same school so it’s really perfect, and I love that it’s drop-in so on mornings where he’s gotten up late and not eaten yet, or just is in a terrible or tired mood, I can just take him home for quiet time and not worry about missing it… And it’s a great opportunity for me to learn what he likes so I can plan similar opportunities at home! AND for me to learn different techniques and teaching skills so he can get the best experience possible out of his time for me…

    I also love that it’s government funded, I’m friends with his parents so I am charging way less than a daycare and it is still stretching their budget. I think the BC government is amazing for funding this, what a great opportunity to give children the best start in life, no matter what their situation 🙂

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