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    • Please join me in welcome Jennifer Hopkins, founder of childhood enrichment program A Play Date Everyday, for a Cake Panel. This panel is open for questions now.

      About Jennifer: Jennifer Hopkins had been performing and teaching dance for over twenty years when she was asked to take over as lead pre-school teacher at an after-school program in Brooklyn. She immediately noticed the different ways that her students struggled socially. It was hard for them to have conversations with more than one person at a time. Some children exhibited bullying behavior to get attention and others didn’t know how to overcome shyness. Then she realized that parents generally had no idea when their children made positive connections with others on the playground or in the classroom. As a natural connector, Jennifer could not leave these observations unaddressed. For the next four years, she focused increasingly on helping her students get to know each other, using skits and stories to teach them how to include each other in conversations and play, and making recommendations to parents about playdates for their children. Eventually, she formalized her curriculum into A Play Date Every Day, an after-school program for three to six-year-olds focused on building social skills for success. The program is beginning its fourth year and its enrollment has doubled in that time. Jennifer is a regular guest speaker at the Small Business Association in NYC, and was recently awarded the CAMBA 2019 award for Entrepreneur of the year.

      Welcome Jennifer!

    • So Jennifer, thank you so much for doing this Cake panel! Can you tell us about A Play Date Every Day, and what inspired you to create the program?

    • I was working in an after school program, and I got put in charge of the Pre-k and Kindergarteners. And I had a last-minute thing, the Pre-K teacher quit, and they gave me them real quick, so I had to. Come up with things for them to do on the spot! It was a GO moment!

      So I had about 14 kids, no plans, and so I started to come up with games. And what I started to realize is that there was a lot of emphasis in those days on “you should be friendly, you should make friends,” but I realized they did not have the skills to do that. So I’ll describe a situation that really made the turn. I was talking to a little boy, we were outside on the playground, and I said “Why don’t you go over there and play with those kids over there?” Because he was all alone. And he said “They’re all over THERE! So he was just going to sit there and wait for them to notice him, come over, and ask. So I realized he didn’t know that he needed to walk over there and say the words “Can I play with you?” 

      So from there, I realized children needed a script. When I was about 19, I was in a dentist office with a copy of Reader’s Digest on the table, with an article entitled “How to have a conversation.” I was intrigued by this. I thought at 19 years old that a conversation had to be earth-shattering, you had to be witty and clever. So I was afraid to have conversations, because I didn’t know if I could live up to the standard. So I read this article in Reader’s Digest, and it said “It’s ok to talk about the weather.” No one will laugh at you for saying “Some weather we’re having! Sure is hot!” So I remembered that, when I was talking to these kids, and I realized they needed a script like I got from that Reader’s Digest article. So from there, I stayed at that after school program for 5 years, and I got promoted to head teacher of Kindergarten and Pre-K, and in that venue, I really started to develop the program as it is now. 

    • The enrichment program that we have is so crucial because they are at an age where they’re making choices and they’re learning how to live in this world. Our program teaches them the skills to reach out to others, and it also teaches them the responsibility of reaching out to people who are alone. And when practiced in the formative years, these things can become habit.

    • This is the time to learn these skills of connecting with other people. Screens tend to give kids an alternative to connecting with people. And prevent them from having these skills be a part of their everyday life, which creates more of a struggle later, if you spend your childhood looking at a screen. So digital balance is more important for a 5 year old than ever!

    • Well, when I brought that little boy over - when I told him he should walk over and say “Can I play with you?” And I saw his eyes light up with recognition that this something he can do, I realized that this is my calling. This is something that I have to develop. 

    • Start Small Think Big connected me with a lot of lawyers who helped me with contracts and a legal entity, and the main thing they helped me with was accounting, keeping the books, that I would not have been able to do without them. They taught me the importance of keeping your personal and business finances separate, how to keep your books, it was priceless information. And the main thing besides that is the level of respect and excitement about MY program from the people at Start Small Think Big was SO encouraging. They were so excited about me continuing on, succeeding. So when I would get weary, discouraged, and want to quit - which I always wanted to do, it was discouraging in the beginning - I couldn’t, because the people at Start Small Think Big were rooting for me! They were so nice. 

    • The advice I’d give to any business owner is don’t quit. Take small steps. Work every day. Take time off for yourself. And in the enrichment space, as far as working with children, don’t lose sight of your primary purpose. Stick to your primary subject. And don’t add things out of fear that it’s something parents want. For example, if you teach dance and specialize in ballet, don’t feel the pressure to add tap dancing because someone says they want their daughter to learn tap!

    • Well, A Play Date Every Day has started an in-school learning series so it’s not just isolated to after school programs. I want to reach the kids in-school as well. So it’s a learning series, which are lessons, 30-45 minute lessons which teach essential skills about making and keeping friends. They are led by trained guest instructors using songs, skits and stories, to learn specific words and behaviors to solve the social dilemmas of early childhood. So we’re pitching that right now, and we’re hoping to bring it into New York City schools next year. And I’ve also started writing a series of children’s books that reflect the lessons taught in A Play Date Every Day.

    • Social isolation is not a new thing, nor is it only a pre-k challenge. In fact, every parent I tell about the program asks jokingly if this program is available for adults!

      As far as the effects of technology on socializing, I do believe that more children are growing up in front of a screen, and their caregivers interact with them less because of their own screens, so learning these skills is not happening organically the way it used to.