It is marvelous to watch children’s social development unfold during the preschool years. Preschoolers learn to take the perspective of others. They also acquire patience for others, as they learn (sometimes the hard way) that their friends didn’t mean to make them angry by knocking down the towers that they had worked so hard to build.

Twenty percent of children have disabilities, and the fact is that children with and without disabilities also need to learn how to play together, since they will meet later, in other school settings, in their families, at work, and in the community.

The preschool division of Chabad Cheder of Baltimore was in the unique situation of sharing a building with JEWELS (Jewish Education Where Every Learner Succeeds), a school for children with special needs.

Cheder and JEWELS were initially completely separate entities that happened to share a building (and also a playground). Chanie Feldman, Preschool Director at the Chabad Cheder, realized that people, including children, are unkind in the face of the unknown.

So she and her staff made a point of bringing the children of both schools together during play time, exposing them to children who were so different yet so alike.

The two programs began to blend. Cheder students accessed therapy services from within the JEWELS’ program. JEWELS students came to Cheder classes for lunch and play times, and all students benefited from the opportunity to practice emerging language and social skills.

Then, teachers began to plan more systematically to meet the needs of specific students. Several JEWELS students come to Cheder for more rigorous academic content, and Cheder students go to JEWELS at certain points during the day to benefit from being in a smaller group and receiving more individualized attention.

Most importantly, the message of inclusion “clicked” with the kids, who formed authentic friendships. When a Cheder teacher arranged for her class to visit a museum, the students asked if they could invite their JEWELS friends to come. A Cheder teacher asked her students to make lists of who would receive mishloach manot that the class was preparing, and the children listed JEWELS friends.

When the children play together on the playground, they don’t simply co-exist; they enjoy each other’s company.

Of course, challenges arise. Children argue with each other, and yes, they knock down each other’s block towers. Some kids are especially frequent tower destroyers. Teachers have to explain that children have different levels of control, and we can’t get too upset, just like we can’t fall apart every time our baby brothers and sisters destroy our puzzles. It isn’t easy, but children learn this. And preschool is the time for this kind of teaching.