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Wee prodigies mix play and learning

Jellybean Park isn't your average daycare. Located in a hallway at Metropolis at Metrotown, the large, spacious boutique company markets itself as a place to turn every kid into a child prodigy.

Jellybean Park isn't your average daycare. Located in a hallway at Metropolis at Metrotown, the large, spacious boutique company markets itself as a place to turn every kid into a child prodigy.

And while most parents think their child is particularly brilliant, you don't have to beget a genius to sign your kid up for Jellybean's prodigy program.

On a Friday afternoon, just a couple of days into the September session, classes are in full swing at the Metrotown location, complete with rooftop playground.

Each class has about four teachers and 25 kids split into groups of about eight for "learning labs." At one table, the fouryear-olds are seated around a French teacher, who asks each in turn: "Est-ce que tu est un garçn ou une fille?"

At the next table, the English teacher is playing a game of Bingo involving illustrated letters. (I for iguana, for example). In the room next door, a group of threeand-half-year-old boys are learning taekwondo with Master Jace, whom they refer to as "sir." Dressed in white suits, they line up excitedly to be flipped on a gymnastics mat by Master Jace, who commends them for their fine form.

Other subjects the kids cover include math, fine arts, science, ballet, social studies and drama. There's also "universal values," where children learn the virtues of kindness, sharing, honesty, courtesy and cooperation. Drop off time is 8: 45 a.m., and parents pick their kids up at 4: 45 p.m., fed, napped and with a full day of stimulated learning.

"We call ourselves more of a playdirected (place)," says Laurel Stewart, a Maple Ridge grandmother who started the business in the early '80s, when she was a single mom with two kids of her own. Stewart began with a mall drop-in program, mainly because she wanted to be closer to her girls, and now, her grandson attends Jellybean's location in Langley.

The child prodigy program uses a type of structured play-based learning, developed over time from teachers who specialized in subjects they are passionate about. Stewart, who has a social work degree, has thrown in some elements of Montessori without the strict, somber tone. There's also a strong emphasis on leadership, confidence, praise, love and sharing affection with the kids, especially the younger ones.

While typical daycares often focus on activities and care, Jellybean's activities are all infused with learning.

"It's hugely different," Stewart says. "It's all about engaging the children, holding their attention as much as possible and engaging in different types of learning."

Jellybean doesn't formally test any of their children to prove their prodigy claims, but staff do hear anecdotal evidence from parents that their children are ahead of the curve by the time they hit kindergarten, sometimes to the point of boredom because they've already covered the material at Jellybean.

"I don't think that means we shouldn't teach them to learn, because they love to learn. That's what they do. Certainly all the studies are backing us up. This is the most fertile time to learn," Stewart says.

Full-time enrolment in the child prodigy program is $958 a month, and Stewart has set up a foundation to help subsidize the cost for low-income families.

Most of the kids at the Burnaby location are Asian, and the program for the littlest ones is tailored to help them learn English. According to the Jellybean staff, after three months the kids can communicate their needs in English, understand commands and translate for their parents if need be.

Stewart's daughter, Chelsea Craig, works in the family business, handling marketing and accounting. Her son, who's enrolled at the Langley location and is just turning two, surprised her this morning by counting to 10 using the bristles on her hair brush. (He can also list various dinosaurs and types of fish, I'm told.)

"I almost peed my pants," Chelsea said, laughing. "We did that all the way to school today."

While Stewart would like to expand the business into other municipalities, she mostly wants to spread the word about the kind of work Jellybean does. And she also wants for every child enrolled what she wants for her own grandson, to instill a love of learning.

"You want them to go forward in life," she says.

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