Bed-Stuy Stories: Annika Kaye of the Howard Avenue Playgroup

Bed-Stuy Blog contributor Mikhal Weiner is profiling interesting residents from our community for her column, Bed-Stuy Stories. Next up is Annika Kaye, who has started the Howard Avenue Playgroup, a creative summer program for kids in the neighborhood.

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I met with Annika Kaye on a recent Sunday morning to talk about Brooklyn, being neighborly, educational philosophy, but especially about her new initiative – The Howard Avenue Playgroup, a creative summer program for kids in Bed-Stuy. As Kaye pushed open the glass door, she smiled broadly, making her way out of the June sun to join me at a back table. She folded her sunglasses and set them on the table, looking positively joyful.

Kaye is a lifelong New-Yorker, born in Stockholm, Sweden but raised in Chelsea in a bustling apartment building. “As a child, my concept of community was saying hello to people in the elevator and that was kind of it. We didn’t know anyone else on the block or surrounding our own building,” she told me. Nevertheless, even as a child she found herself creating mini-communities – getting to know her neighbors and babysitting younger kids in the building, even though she herself was, at the time, quite young. “Now, as a mother, I can’t imagine leaving my kid with a ten year old, but back then…” she chuckles. It was another time and another place. Brooklyn is different, though, she says, “Slower pace, greater space, community…it’s a very noticeable difference. Neighbors saying hello to each other, kids coming over for spontaneous playdates, that’s what I appreciate about Brooklyn.”

Kaye has always felt a connection to this borough, has always known, on some level, that she would end up here. “I remember at my ten year high school reunion, someone heard that I’d moved to Brooklyn and they said ‘that makes sense, you were a Brooklynite all along,’ and I felt like that was the greatest compliment.” When I asked if her husband feels the same way she smiled and said, “He grew up on Staten Island, but he, as well, his destiny is here.”

For the past five years, here has meant Bed-Stuy, in an apartment on Howard Avenue with her husband and their daughter, just shy of six years old. The playgroup will be run out of their home and backyard, with a focus on child-led, process-based activities for kids ages 3-6. As a seasoned early childhood educator, she wants to create a space where kids can explore different artistic materials through play, creative activities, and guided projects. “It’s messy,” her eyes twinkled, “[it’s] super hands-on and there’s basically no right or wrong way to do an art project.” In other words, it’s about the learning process, not the end product. “If you walk into a classroom and you see a bulletin board with 20 identical bunny rabbits, one can assume that the art was not the creation of the children, but rather an exercise in following directions,” she explained, “So when I use the term process-based, it’s the opposite of product-based art. It means that children have a variety of materials to choose from and they get to […] use them in any way they wish. I’m a guide, and I can teach them how to use those materials, but it’s not my job to teach them what to do with the materials.”

The choice to build the curriculum in this way is a conscious one that Kaye made based on her years as a teacher in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. “I graduated college in 2000 and started teaching right away,” she explained. Kaye holds a B.A. from Wheaton College in Massachusetts and an M.A. from Bank Street College of Education, but her years of experience pre-date her college years. “My mother always says that when she brought me to the playground all I wanted to do is play with children younger than myself,” she said, only half-joking.

Kaye intends for the Howard Avenue Playgroup to create the experience she would want for her own daughter, or for her neighbor’s kids. “This is for our whole community not just a slice of our community,” she said, “I want to be clear, I can be really flexible on accommodating families. [For instance], there are a lot of programs that are done at noon, and that’s not realistic for working parents. That suggests that everyone has a babysitter or a nanny who can come pick their kid up at noon. If someone wanted to stay for a half-day that would be fine, but they’re also welcome to stay until 5:00 or 6:00. Also the cost of the program – I can work with families who might [feel more comfortable with] a sliding scale.” Her flexibility also extends to programming – families are welcome to join for a single day, a single class, or the full program.

Community is a central value to Kaye, and it’s one of the many reasons that she and her family love living in Bed-Stuy. “I don’t want to live in a place where we’re all in these insulated bubbles,” she said, explaining the commitment she feels to her block and neighbors. She says that being neighborly is, simple, in the small, everyday acts “…saying hello. I think that’s number one -acknowledging your neighbors, knowing their names, doing what you can to be a good neighbor. So, in my case, that’s keeping my block clean, doing what I can to beautify the neighborhood and not just knowing your neighbors but extending yourself. If my neighbor needs help bringing groceries up the stairs, or the mom next door needs to go grocery shopping – of course her kids can hang out at my house. I mean, to me, that’s being a good neighbor.”

This summer, for two weeks, Kaye will open up her home to more neighbors. “This is an informal, small, family run operation,” she clarified, “I want [the kids] to feel at home. I want them to feel as though they’re on a playdate. We’re fortunate to have a beautiful back yard where we can get messy, do a lot of water play, and spend time outdoors.” Arts, crafts, sprinklers, and backyard play time – sounds like a pretty fabulous time to me.

The Howard Avenue playgroup is still open for registration!

Contact Annika Kaye at howardavenueplaygroup@gmail.com or visit http://www.howardavenueplaygroup.com for more information.

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