WESLEY CHAPEL — Mr. Hops made the rounds during circle time in amiable fashion. The small, green stuffed frog was gingerly passed from hand to hand, getting a few squeezes along the way, as one child after another introduced themselves — some boldly, others in shy manner.
There was Anthony, Lauren, Ethan, Sebastian and C.J., Madison, Cameron, Ashley and Joshua.
"Hey — that's my dad's name!" someone piped in.
"Isn't that great! You have something in common with your new friend!" the newly introduced Miss Taylor said. "But remember, raising your hand is important in kindergarten if you want to say something or go to the bathroom."
Welcome to kindergarten camp, where the newest students coming to Seven Oaks Elementary get a taste of what the school year will bring. About 50 of the school's 126 incoming kindergarteners are attending the camp, which runs four mornings this week. The experience allows them to test the waters before school starts later this month, with the full-day schedule and more than 900 kids on campus.
The popular camp, which costs $80 per student, typically has a waiting list. Parent Sanela Dzanan made sure to sign up her son, Liam, early — particularly because the first day of school could be overwhelming.
"This is super — anything that will help the transition," said Dzanan, 36, while lingering with other parents as Liam, 5, and the others got a lesson in "line etiquette." "He was so excited. He was telling me, 'Why don't you leave? Go home now.' "
It is just the first of many steps meant to nurture independence and a lifelong desire for learning.
"What we know about kindergarten camp is that students come in better prepared on the first day of school," principal B.J. Smith said. "Detachment is easier, and they come in with a sense of pride because they already know the process."
Students learn their way around the campus. They visit the music and art rooms, the cafeteria and the covered shelter where they will play games and sports.
With a firm but gentle nudge, they are told that they'll be expected to share crayons and pencils with others along with the task of cleaning up. In kindergarten, it's your responsibility to throw away that snack napkin, push in your chair and line up at the purple door that leads outside to the jump ropes, soccer balls, hula hoops and sidewalk chalk.
They also get a pep talk about all the new friends they will make, and that it's really okay if they don't know how to read yet, even though the kid sitting next to them is following along as the teacher reads Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
"Do you want to know the big kindergarten secret?" Miss Taylor asked her young charges during morning circle time. "When you're done with kindergarten, you'll all be able to read."
Most important is the introduction to the four tenets of kindergarten:
1. Do your best.
2. Be kind to others.
3. Follow directions.
No doubt about it, kindergarten is where it all starts, said Smith, who welcomed students to the school after Mr. Hops had made his rounds. "It's the most important grade. This is where they plant their roots; where they learn to be a good friend, a good citizen, to love to learn. Or not."
"Kindergarten is a make-it-or-break-it year," said Michelle Bergmann, one of four teachers to lead Seven Oaks' kindergarten camp. "If they have a bad experience, it could hinder their educational career."
That's why there's so much positive reinforcement for jobs well done, from holding the door to filing down the outdoor corridors properly — "next to the grass, but not in the grass" — to knowing your colors and being able to write your first and last name.
Kindergarten camp was definitely a thumbs up experience for Cameron Canard, 5, who was already showing some leadership skills on the first day.
"I'm all ready for kindergarten," he said, as he wrote his name on the title page of a book he and other students would create to show their families what they had seen at camp. "I know it's going to be fun."