Willow Wood Preschool

Gazette Article by: Kathy Handelman
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2000

In the late 1960s, much like today, a baby boom in full swing found parents of toddlers scrambling to get their children into area preschools. A group of mothers from Kenilworth Gardens frequently bemoaned the tight enrollments and, with little money but great enthusiasm, decided to start a preschool of their own. In 1967 the doors to Kenilworth Community Preschool opened to 25 students. Today under a new name—Willow Wood—the school’s enrollment stands at full capacity, 180 students, with an ever-growing waiting list.

The founding women felt certain in those early years that they were laying the groundwork for “another fine preschool in the area,” but as one admitted, “we never realized our hopes would come to such fruition.”

The women, who had come together casually with a shared vision in mind, soon found themselves meeting at night when their husbands were available to handle babysitting duties. Experienced in philanthropy and highly active, the founding board divided tasks and put their plan into action.

Carol MacKimm, one of the founders, worked tirelessly in the planning stages only to find her family transferred to New York before the preschool’s doors first opened at the Church of the Holy Comforter. She described how upbeat the group remained, despite the challenges of meeting arduous state requirements. She laughed remembering how they were required to have a designated number of feet of outside playground space per child, a figure they had to guess at since they had no idea how many children they would have that first year. “But we never second-guessed ourselves,” she said. “It was just a wonderful adventure.”

Willow Wood, built on the idea of being community-based rather than church-based, moved to Kenilworth Union Church in 1970 and one year later to the Winnetka Presbyterian Church at Willow and Hibbard roads—thus the new name, Willow Wood. Since 1998, Willow Wood’s home has been Christ Church in Winnetka, in a newly designed and decorated space with a creative playground and a long, sloping hill for running and sledding.

The constant through much of the school’s history has been Char Howland, who this year celebrates her 28th year with the school, her 16th as director. In her first year, she agreed to teach a few mornings a week at Willow Wood while her children were in school. She has never left. Howland led the school in becoming the first in the area to be accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs.

The school has never strayed from its founding belief that children need to be children first. Never ascribing to any specific theory of childhood education, it has maintained its belief in developmental, age-appropriate play. To give back to the community and raise fundraising dollars, Willow Wood three years ago introduced its Snowflake Festival, which is tied to the community’s TV Tuneout Week.

Willow Wood spans generations of Winnetka families. Don Padgitt, an attorney, drafted the school’s article of incorporation. His wife Joy served on the board and his children and grandchildren have all attended the school. Founder Kate Dellin recently visited the school, where her grandson currently is enrolled. Her daughter will begin serving on the school’s volunteer board next year.

Dellin was gratified to see that the hardwood trucks and blocks, manufactured by her family’s lumber and toy company under the Connor and Sifo name, are still integral to a child’s play. A wooden kitchen sink and aluminum baking pans donated by the family have withstood the years.

“It’s heartwarming,” noted Dellin. “We were so right in that there was a real need for another preschool. We’re so proud of our accomplishment, proud that it lasted this long and that it will continue.”

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One Response to “Willow Wood Preschool”

  1. May 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    Thank you for providing this background of Willow Wood. I was board president in the early years. I believe the school was housed at Holy Comforter for two years. I know it was located at Kenilworth Union for TWO years. My daughter attended there those two years. Later on my son attended Willow Wood. I drove all the way from East Wilmette just so he could be a student there. Such a wonderful staff of teachers including Muriel Shapiro and Char Howland.

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